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Wednesday, 09 December 2009 20:31

Geminids to peak December 13-14, 2009: Great show expected!

North Americans and others across the Northern Hemisphere will get a treat in the December night sky, and this time it’s not Santa Claus. The Geminid meteor shower will peak on December 13-14, 2009 (depending on your locale) with around 140 meteors per hour.

It’s already bitterly cold this December across much of the United States and Canada, but if you can withstand the frigid weather you should be in for a treat when the Geminids peak in mid-December.

The Geminids will be visible for most of the Northern Hemisphere during its December 2009 appearance--that is, if the weather cooperates with clear skies (ya never know).

Unfortunately, people in the Southern Hemisphere will only be able to see a much reduced number of meteors as part of the Geminids.

According to the 10-19-2009 NASA media brief “The 2009 Geminid Meteor Shower,” Bill Cooke, lead astronomer at the Meteoroid Environment Office (MEO) at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, states, "It's the Geminid meteor shower, and it will peak on Dec. 13th and 14th under ideal viewing conditions."

However, you should also be able to see meteors from December 6th to 19th, only not so many when compared to its peak time.

During this peak time the Geminids are noted for producing differently colored meteors, sometimes up to sixty different colors in an hour.

The colors of meteors may differ due to the chemical makeup of each individual object.

Page two describes the different colors that can be produced by the meteors, and why.

When the meteors glow (are heated)--as they skip across the sky from the friction produced when the meteors hit Earth’s atmosphere--they produce different colors depending on the particular elements composing the meteors.

For instance, meteors that contain a lot of sodium (Na) produces orange and yellow colors, while iron (Fe) produces yellow and magnesium (Mg) shows up in blues and greens.

Calcium (Ca) makes for violet colors and silicates (compounds consisting of silicon [Si]) result in red colors--don't confuse these with Santa's red coat.

To make the environment even better in your local night sky, the Moon will be in its (almost) new phase so its minimal appearance will keep the sky nice and dark for better viewing of these meteors.

According to the International Meteor Organization (IMO), the peak for the Geminid meteor shower will be 12:10 a.m. Eastern Standard Time (EST), which is 0510 UT, on December 14, 2009.

The IMO state, "The Geminids is one of the finest, and probably the most reliable, annual meteor shower.... Many observers consider the shower to be more spectacular than the famous Perseids in August, but the Geminids are less widely known because of the cold and often clouded December nights in the northern hemisphere."

Page three provides information on which direction to look in the night sky for the Geminids.

You’ll see it coming just northwest of the constellation Gemini, near the twin bright stars of Castor and Pollux. This point near the two stars, at which they appear to be coming out of, is called its “radiant.”

Look in the eastern direction within the night sky for those of you in the Northern Hemisphere.

Check out the Sky Map for the Geminids in association with the constellation Gemini, courtesy of NASA.

However, the IMO notes that the meteor shower is broad in scope so sky watchers may see a lot of activity for hours before and/or after this 0510 UT predicted peak time.

Cooke states: "Watch the sky during the hours around local midnight. For North Americans, this means Sunday night to Monday morning."

The meteors within the Geminids come from pieces of debris from the Apollo asteroid 3200 Phaethon.

Astronomers once thought it was an asteroid, but now it is usually termed as an extinct comet (that is, a comet that has expelled most of its ice so it has little left to form a tail or coma).

NASA describes it as “… basically, the rocky skeleton of a comet that lost its ice after too many close encounters with the sun.”

Page four concludes with history of 3200 Phaethon, and how it was discovered; and provides a look at the number of meteors expected in the future.

3200 Phaethon, named after Phaeton (or Phaethon), the son of the sun god Helios in ancient Greek mythology, was discovered by astronomers Simon F. Green and John K. Davies while they were searching data taken by the Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS) on October 11, 1983.

The object, about 5.1 kilometers (3.2 miles) in diameter, is noted to be the first asteroid to be discovered by a spacecraft.

The trend for the number of meteors seen during its peak has been increasing over the past several years. The gravity of Jupiter is causing the stream of meteors within the Geminids to move toward the orbit of the Earth.

This increase in numbers is expected by astronomers to continue over the next several decades. In fact, they predict that eventually the Geminids could become a "fireball shower”—producing a massive number of meteors per hour and many of these meteors could likely be very bright as they wiz across the sky.

Learn more about the Geminid meteor shower, both respect to observations and history, from the Meteor Showers Online website “Observing the Geminids.”

The article begins with: “This [the Geminids] is one of the best meteor showers of the year and never seems to disappoint observers.”

Remember to dress warmly and stay comfortable (lay down inside a sleeping bag, for instance), and watch the Geminids with a friend (especially if you are traveling outside of your front or backyard).

And, if you happen to see Santa flying across the night sky in his sleigh pulled by a bunch of reindeer, he must be performing a few test flights before the big night later in December.

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