Get Ready for 2010's Best Meteor Shower

By: From CBS News
By: From CBS News

What promises to be the best meteor shower of the year is hitting its peak just in time for the holidays, but skywatchers should act fast: This sky show peaks overnight tonight.

At the heart of the skywatching spectacle is the Geminid meteor shower, an annual mid-December rain of meteors that will reach its height tonight (December 13th) and early tomorrow morning. Skywatchers with good weather and clear skies could see up to 120 meteors an hour during the meteor shower's peak.

This sky map shows where to look to see the Geminid meteor shower during peak hours tonight and tomorrow, the 13th and 14th.

The meteors will appear to emanate from a spot in the sky near the bright star Castor in the constellation Gemini (the Twins), which gave the shower its name.

The Geminids are one of the most reliable displays of "shooting stars" of every year, and 2010's display is not expected to disappoint. The Geminids should be clearly visible to skywatchers in North America by late tonight, but viewing conditions will improve dramatically once the moon sets at around 12:30 a.m. local time tomorrow morning.

The best time to watch for Gemind meteors will be at 5:00 in the morning Kansas time, when the shower is expected to be at its most active.

Since the Gemind meteor shower occurs in the winter for North American skywatchers, there are some handy tips to remember before venturing outside into the chilly December night.

"At this time of year, meteor watching can be a long, cold business," advises SPACE.com's skywatching columnist Joe Rao. "You wait and you wait for meteors to appear. When they don't appear right away, and if you're cold and uncomfortable, you're not going to be looking for meteors for very long. Therefore, make sure you're warm and comfortable."

Warm coats or blankets, as well as a comfortable reclining lawn chair are vital assets for committed skywatchers hoping to observe the Geminids. Rao has said the Geminids are "usually the most satisfying of all the annual showers. They can even surpass the famous Perseid meteors of August at their peak."

Geminid Observing Tips:
"Look for state or city parks or other safe, dark sites. Lie on a blanket or reclining chair to get a full-sky view," StarDate magazine advised in a statement. "If you can see all of the stars in the Little Dipper, you have good dark-adapted vision."

Meteor showers occur when the Earth passes through the debris trail left by a passing comet or asteroid. As the Earth crosses these trails, the leftover dust and rocks hit the planet's atmosphere and burns up in a fiery meteor. In space, these objects are known as meteoroids. They are known as meteors when they burn up in Earth's atmosphere. Any meteors that reach the ground are called meteorites.

The Geminid meteor shower was first identified in the 1860s but it wasn't until 1983 when a NASA satellite rocky asteroid 3200 Phaethon as the source of shooting star display.

"When the Geminids first appeared in the late 19th century, shortly before the U.S. Civil War, the shower was weak and attracted little attention," NASA officials said in a statement. "There was no hint that it would ever become a major display."

Now the meteor shower is eagerly anticipated to dazzle skywatchers every year.


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