If you need a little pick-me-up this week, there’s some good news from outer space. Aka, the best meteor shower of the year starts tonight, December 13th. Who couldn’t use a little star gazing ahead of the winter solstice? At the very least, it will be a great light show — if you know how to find it.
This week’s meteor shower is called the Geminid, and it appears every December when Earth passes through a dust cloud that’s created by a rocky object known as 3200 Phaethon. As the dust and dirt from 3200 Phaethon comes into contact with our atmosphere, it burns up and creates a flurry of what looks like shooting stars — but really it’s just a bunch of debris on fire, 64 million miles away. Pretty cool, right?
According to Bill Cooke of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office, scientists don’t know for sure what 3200 Phaethon really is, but most researchers agree that it’s either a “near Earth asteroid or an extinct comet.”
The three-mile-long rock will be closer to earth than it’s ever been since it was discovered in 1983, so while you’re staring up at the heavens, NASA scientists will be trying to figure out more about the mysterious object.
Here’s what the Geminid looked like last year, in Russia.
Eric Vandernoot, astronomy and physics lab coordinator at Florida Atlantic University, told the Sun Sentinel that the shower should have hints of red and yellow, but you’ll need to be far enough away from the city to really see it.
Cooke says that the Geminid activity is really “broad,” but that it’s best seen between 12 a.m. and 4 a.m. between December 13th and 14th.
You don’t need a special contraption to see it, but Cooke does recommend tracing a meteor backwards with your naked eye once you spot one to figure out if what you saw was a Geminid or some other meteor, since they do happen all the time. “If you end up in the constellation Gemini there’s a good chance you’ve seen a Geminid,” Cooke said.
So grab your hot chocolate, bundle up, and go check out the sky tonight!