Intense meteor shower to peak this weekend

Canadians willing to brave the cold and lucky enough to get a break in the clouds could be treated to a spectacular meteor shower Sunday.

Canadians willing to brave the cold and lucky enough to get a break in the clouds could be treated to a spectacular meteor shower Sunday.

NASA's all-sky camera at the Marshall Space Flight Center captured a flurry of Geminid meteors in this long-exposure photo. The white curve in the middle of the picture represents the path of the moon in the sky. ((NASA))
The annual Geminid meteor shower is expected to reach its peak just after midnight ET on Sunday night. With the moon waning to a thin crescent at the same time, NASA says skygazers could see up to 140 meteors per hour.

"Watch the sky during the hours around local midnight. For North Americans, this means Sunday night to Monday morning," said Bill Cooke of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office.

The shower can be seen coming out of the constellation Gemini, which is to the left and a bit higher than Orion and its characteristic three-star belt in the North American sky.

While the peak of the shower's activity is on Sunday night, meteors should be visible for a few days before and after that peak.

The Geminid shower is among the most active of the annual meteor events, and it's getting more intense with each passing year.

"The Geminids are strong — and getting stronger," said Cooke.

The global light show is created as Earth moves through a cloud of dust from an object called 3200 Phaethon.

Meteor showers normally come from dusty comets, but 3200 Phaethon is an exception. Some astronomers consider Phaethon to be the dead, rocky nucleus of a burned-out comet trapped in a tight orbit.

The Geminids were quite weak when they were first identified in the late 19th century, but have intensified in those 150 years.

Astronomers say Jupiter's gravity has been causing the debris from Phaethon to move gradually toward Earth's orbit.

Could become 'fireballs shower'

Peter Brown, a meteor expert at London's University of Western Ontario, says the meteor shower could continue to grow in intensity, eventually becoming more like a "fireball shower.

"Based on modeling of the debris done by Jim Jones in the UWO meteor group back in the 1980s, it is likely that Geminid activity will increase for the next few decades, perhaps getting 20 per cent to 50 per cent higher than current rates," said Brown.

A 50 per cent increase in activity would mean 200 or more meteors per hour.

However, that's only one model, Brown says, and others suggest that the Geminids could fall off over the next few decades.

"We understand little about the details of the formation and evolution of Phaethon's debris despite many years of efforts," said Brown.

In 2006, NASA astronomers observed at least five Geminid meteors crash into the moon.