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A definitive meteor storm

by William J. Bechaver

EARTH — Last month’s meteor showers proved to be a little challenging. We had a few cloudy mornings during the peak hours, with a chilly wind blowing. But your persistence may have paid off, and if so, the rewards were great, with several bright meteors being spotted despite the trying conditions.

Our meteor assignment this month will seem like a cake walk in comparison, with the peak of the Geminid Meteor Shower coming in a virtually moonless sky.

A meteor shower occurs when the Earth passes through the trail of icy particles that were left behind by a passing comet. Each year, our planet passes through the debris field, which makes the occurrence a very predictable, annual event.

What’s more, the particle field responsible for the Geminid shower is very dense, and very expansive, giving us several days of meteor activity, before and after the peak date.

To assist us this year, the moon will be a waning crescent, rising early in the morning, just before sunrise, therefore not interfering with the darkest hours of the night, when meteor activity will be at its prime.

So, go out all this week, any time really. The constellation Gemini is rising in the east just after sunset. The Geminid meteor shower appears to radiate from the constellation, so by midnight, it is practically overhead.

The later you go out, the higher the radiant, and the better are your chances of seeing more of the fireballs. Early morning, up to a few hours after midnight, remains to be the prime time, but earlier in the evening, your chances remain pretty good. Or even later in the morning, as long as it is before the sun begins to lighten the twilight sky, your chances are great.

The peak date for the meteors is the late night of Wednesday, December 13 and into Thursday morning, December 14. They will impact the upper atmosphere at a rate of about 120 an hour, so you can see about two a minute, on average.

Remember, they are unpredictable as to the regularity of impact. You can go several minutes without seeing any, or see a half a dozen in one minute. So be patient, and persistent, and you will be rewarded.

The icy particles that impact the atmosphere are traveling at a relatively slow speed upon entry. They travel at a mere 22 miles a second, which translates to just under 80,000 miles an hour. A seemingly amazing speed, but slow for meteors. As a result of their “slow” entry, they will leave behind an instantaneous, dispersing glow in their wake.

On the peak morning, look for the crescent moon to rise just before 4 o’clock, accompanied by Jupiter a few degrees away, and Mars just a few more degrees above that.

And if you miss the peak morning for meteor activity, or if the weather doesn’t cooperate, fret not, for the activity will continue for several nights afterwards, so it will be worth the effort to go out and look, at least through the new moon phase, which doesn’t occur until the night of Sunday, December 17.

So, the heavens provide another holiday gift for us this year, with a spectacular view of the December Geminid Meteor Shower.

Thanks for the positive feedback about our featured columns, and your continued interest in astronomy. If you have any questions or article requests, contact us at spacescape@rocketmail.com, or follow us on Twitter @ColoSpacEScapE for updates and additional viewing opportunities. • William J. Bechaver is the director of SPACE • Spanish Peaks Amateur Cosmos Enthusiasts, the premier Astronomical Society for Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico.

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