The Geminids Are Coming

This is an abridged version of an article that appears in the December Sky & Telescope, page 71.

During the 2004 Geminid meteor shower, Alan Dyer caught a bright fireball with a tripod-mounted digital camera. He used a wide-field, 16-mm lens for a 1-minute exposure at f/2.8 with an ISO setting of 800. Expect to shoot a lot of frames before you get this lucky. Click image for larger view.
Alan Dyer
The night sky offers many wonderful sights, but few are as magical as meteors. These “shooting stars” are fleeting, unpredictable, and incredibly beautiful. Every time I see one, I feel as though I’ve received a special gift from the cosmos.

Meteors happen all the time. You’re almost sure to see them any time you spend a few hours looking at a clear, dark sky. But you can improve your odds tremendously by going out during one of the annual meteor showers — bursts of meteors that take place on roughly the same dates every year.

The strongest and most reliable meteor showers are the Perseids of August and December’s Geminids. Balmy weather and summer vacations have made the Perseids well known and popular, but the Geminids are actually easier to view from mid-northern latitudes. For one thing, nights are much longer in December. And while the Perseids are best viewed before dawn (as most showers are), the Geminids offer excellent viewing starting in mid- to late evening.

Iin North America the 2007 Geminid meteor shower starts to pick up strength before dawn on the morning of Thursday, December 13. The best time for Americans to observe is late on Thursday night and early Friday morning, December 13-14. And there should be significant activity on Friday night too.

In Asia, the shower's peak falls at an ideal time, early on Saturday morning. That means that there will be strong activity from late Friday until sunrise on Saturday. In Europe, the nights of Thursday-Friday and Friday-Saturday should both offer good viewing.

Your Detailed Local Forecast

This photo shows Geminids streaming away from the shower's radiant near the star Castor. It was made by combining 83 out of 1,256 exposures shot over an 11-hour time span on December 13-14, 2004. Click above for a larger image.
Fred Bruenjes
All the meteors in a shower appear to stream at us from a single spot in the sky: the shower’s radiant. Meteor showers are named after their radiants. For instance, the Geminids stream away from a point in the northeastern corner of the constellation Gemini, which is currently host to brilliant Mars.

All other things being equal, the higher a shower’s radiant is in the sky, the more meteors you’ll see. The Geminid’s radiant is highest around 2 a.m., and it’s already well above the eastern horizon by 9 or 10 p.m. for observers at mid-northern latitudes. That means that the Geminids usually offer excellent shows in the late evening. But there are two more factors to consider.

The darker the sky is, the more meteors you’ll see — and the more spectacular they’ll appear. So it’s usually best to pick a time when the Moon isn’t up. Fortunately, the Moon is a thin waxing crescent during this year’s Geminids, setting before the shower is in full swing and not very bright even while it’s still up.

The final factor is the shower’s inherent strength: the number of meteoroids hitting Earth as a whole, regardless of your own local circumstances. Some showers stretch over many days or even weeks, but the Geminids have a very sharp peak. The curve is also strikingly asymmetric. It takes two days for the rate to climb from one-fifth of the maximum to full strength, but less than one day to drop back to the same level.

This year the Geminids’ peak arrives at 17h Universal Time on Friday, December 14th. That’s great news in East Asia, where the peak coincides with the radiant’s reaching its highest point in the sky, during the early hours of Saturday morning. But in the Americas, the peak falls right in the middle of the day, at noon Eastern Standard Time on Friday. So we’ll miss the very best part of the show.

Because the Geminid rate rises slower than it falls, prospects for North Americans are better before the peak than afterward. Activity should start out modestly around 9 or 10 p.m. on Thursday, December 13th, and then strengthen steadily throughout the night. Just before dawn on Friday morning, you might see a meteor every minute or two from a dark location.

On Friday evening, activity should start about as well as it did on Thursday evening but then decline steadily throughout the night. In fact, the predawn hours of Thursday may offer better viewing, even though they’re more than a day before the shower’s peak.

If you'd like to try not just sightseeing but doing a genuine meteor count, one worth reporting to the International Meteor Organization, see our article "Advanced Meteor Observing". It's easier than it sounds.

21 thoughts on “The Geminids Are Coming

  1. Robert

    I am hosting a meteor watching party on a remote section of Cebu Island in the Philippines. It’s on the beach, about 100km from the city, and also on the opposite side of the mountains from the city. Light pollution is never a problem there … On clear nights the milky way is easily visible.

    According to what I have read so far, I think we are perfectly placed for a good show. Will let you know how it goes!

  2. Eduardo Casarin

    I thank you very much but I couldn´t undertand if peolple from the west as I am in Los Cabos Mexico please could you tell me if and what time could we see it
    Thanks and congrat for job well done

  3. American Soldier

    Even though the light polution here is pretty bad from the air field lights, I hope to be able to see the meteor shower from Balad, Iraq. The North/East sky is usually pretty clear for me. I wish I could have a “star party!” 🙂

  4. bianca

    hey what time are you guys going to be waiting for the meteor shower here in the philippines? we’ll be watching it from tagaytay hopefully but i don’t know what time.. what time? ü

  5. Jeff

    Hey guys! at what time will the meteor shower be most visible here in Iloilo City? Please reply coz im excited!

  6. Tony Flanders

    In response to Eduardo Casarin’s question, Mexico is very much part of North America, and the forecast there is just the same as in the U.S. Best prospects on the night of Thursday-Friday, also possible on the next night, and pretty good before dawn on Thursday as well.

    In the Phillipines, the night of Friday-Saturday will be best.

    In all cases, people who want to see the most meteors should start before midnight and continue until the sky starts to get light the next morning. If you’re not serious enough to do that, then decide for yourself whether observing in the very late evening or early morning is more convenient.

  7. Tutu

    I’m on the Big Island and would like to take some friends up Mauna Kea for observing. Which night do you think will deliver the best show for Hawaii?

    Tony answers: The shower should be excellent in Hawaii before dawn on Friday morning — which is Saturday morning in Asia. If you need to go in the evening, Thursday will be significantly better than Friday.

  8. Beverly Mucha

    I’ve always loved watching meteor showers since I was little but I am a little confused on the time that would be best to see it because everytime I read these things the time is usually for the east and Im here in southern CA. Any help on when would be the best time to see it for me please???

    Tony answers: For a normal, relatively broad meteor shower like the Geminids, a couple thousand miles doesn’t make much difference. The forecast is the same all over the Americas: the rates should start out OK around 9 or 10 p.m. on Thursday and continue to rise until the sky starts to get light on Friday morning.

    The show should actually be a little better on the West Coast, because the worldwide peak falls at noon EST on Friday, which is 9 a.m. PST. So dawn happens only about three hours before the peak in California, compared to six hours before the peak in the East.

  9. Steven

    Since the middle of this year, I cannot get meteor showers to show in the Interactive Sky Chart; they used to be labeled. I’ve tried clicking and unclicking settings to no avail. Are they no longer in the Chart, or am I still doing something wrong??

  10. nick

    we are seeing quite a few very bright and somewhat scary metors coming close and we think hitting the top of our apt complex..is this possible?? are they the least bit dangerous?

  11. Gabriela Pereira

    My astronomy club (CASP – Clube de Astronomia de São Paulo or in English: Astronomy Club of the City of Sao Paulo – Brazil at 23.33’S 46.35’W) is already anxious for tomorrow “shower party”. This time we will be about 40 people.

    We will go to a nice mountain city (Campos do Jordao at 22.73’S 45.58′ W) a few kilometers away.

    For timing we used one of our planetarium softwares and for the sky charts, we used the Heavens Above Web Site: http://www.heavens-above.com (that might help some amateurs questions).

    Hope the weather will help us here in South Hemisfere and everyone watching around the globe.

    Good sky everyone!

  12. Gabriela Pereira

    My astronomy club (CASP – Clube de Astronomia de São Paulo or in English: Astronomy Club of the City of Sao Paulo – Brazil at 23.33’S 46.35’W) is already anxious for tomorrow “shower party”. This time we will be about 40 people.

    We will go to a nice mountain city (Campos do Jordao at 22.73’S 45.58′ W) a few kilometers away.

    For timing we used one of our planetarium softwares and for the sky charts, we used the Heavens Above Web Site: http://www.heavens-above.com (that might help some amateurs questions).

    Hope the weather will help us here in South Hemisfere and everyone watching around the globe.

    Good sky everyone!

  13. Craig

    You’re actually very lucky that they are landing on your roof! One they cool off, scoop them up and place them in a glass jar, and your friends will be amazed. However, screw the top on tight, because they have been known to move around by themselves at night, and get into your cupboards. Many people make necklaces out of them, and sell them on ebay.

  14. Max

    While looking NE for comet Holmes about 8pm ET on 15 Dec, I saw a bright yellow meteor streak NE to NW. I was stunned because the track was much brighter and longer than any other meteor I have ever seen, and it lasted so long that I actually had to turn my head to follow it. It then burst into a fireball. It seemed to originate NE of Perseus and explode between Cepheus and Casseopeia. For a couple of minutes I continued to look for more meteors and saw two with short, yellow tracks. Since they all were yellow, is it more likely that they were space junk rather than meteoroids? All the other meteors I have ever seen were shorter and faster blue/white streaks. I hope someone else in west-central Florida can confirm my sighting.

  15. jen

    WOW, I saw the geminids last night driving home. I am in northern Michigan, USA. I thought I was just getting lucky
    seeing so many shooting stars!! they were very bright and beautiful, like I haven’t seen in a long time.
    I was lucky to get to see them, but after reading about the geminids, now I know what they were!
    jen

  16. A human

    No, they won’t hit your apartment complex- about 40 meteors actually land on the ground, and then mainly in the ocean. No need to be concerned.

  17. Niket

    I was driving home on the day TWA 800 crashed and saw a bright green fuzzball streak coming down in the eastern sky. It was still daylight and it was not the usual quick line across the sky, so I did not believe it was a meteor. When I got home and turned on the TV there was the report of the crash. I live in California, and obviously whatever it was could not have been involved with TWA 800. But I always wondered about the coincidence and what that was.

    My question – can a meteor be seen during day? And what is the maximum time you can see an individual meteor? What about a satellite reentry?

    Tony answers: Yes, meteors bright enough to be seen during the day are fairly common. Many cases are reported every year, and no doubt many more happen when or where nobody is looking. Slow-moving meteors sometimes last for a few seconds — certainly never as long as a minute. However, they often leave trails (clouds) that can persist for many minutes, or even hours. Satellite re-entries look a lot like meteors, but they’re abnormally slow.

  18. Emmi

    oh guys you are so lucky to be able to watch such a beautiful phenomenon,I’ve never been able to see it before,but I think I saw the Perseids once or twice as I always noticed that in a certain time of summer the number of shooting stars increase,Well I really wanna know if what I had seen was just a single shooting star or an amazing meteor shower so does any one know If I can watch meteor showers in Egypt???

  19. andrew jao

    hello the geminids shower peak this year 2009 is on dec.14 13:08 philippine time. so when is the best time to view it is it dawn of dec. 14 or dawn of the 15th of december. thanks

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