As the earth rotates around the sun all year round, it passes streams of cosmic debris. The resulting meteor showers can light up the night sky from dusk to dawn, and if you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse of them.
The next shower you possibly can see is known as the Geminids. It’s active December 4th through December 20th and is expected to peak from Sunday evening through Monday morning or December 13th through 14th.
It is believed that the Geminids, along with the Quadrantids, which peaked in January, are not derived from comets, but rather from asteroid-like space rocks. The Geminids are believed to have been made by an object called the 3200 Phaethon (an asteroid that a Japanese space mission, Destiny +, will visit later this decade). When you see them, this meteor shower can light up the night sky at 120 to 160 meteors per hour.
While many showers are most visible after midnight and before sunrise, the Geminids can be visible as early as 10 p.m. in some locations, according to the International Meteor Organization, although the best viewing can start around 11 a.m. and last until 4 a.m.
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Where do meteor showers come from
When you spot a meteor shower, you usually see the remains of an icy comet crashing into Earth’s atmosphere. Comets are like dirty snowballs: as they wander through the solar system, they leave a dusty trail of stones and ice that lingers in space long after they leave. As Earth passes through these cascades of cometary debris, the debris – which can be as small as grains of sand – penetrates the sky at such a speed that it bursts and creates heavenly fireworks.
A general rule of thumb when it comes to meteor showers: you never watch the earth turn into debris from a comet’s final orbit. Instead, the burning parts come from the previous rounds. For example, during the Perseid meteor shower, you’ll see meteors that were ejected when their parent comet, Comet Swift-Tuttle, visited in 1862 or earlier, not from its last pass in 1992.
According to Bill Cooke, an astronomer with NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office, it takes time for debris to drift out of a comet’s orbit into a position where it intersects Earth’s orbit.
How to watch
The best way to see a meteor shower is to get to a place where you can see the entire night sky freely. Ideally, that would be somewhere with dark skies, away from city lights and traffic. To maximize your chances of seeing the show, look for a location that offers expansive, unobstructed views.
Parts of meteor showers are visible for a certain period of time, but on certain days they reach a visible peak from dusk to dawn. During these days, Earth orbit traverses the thickest part of the cosmic flow. Meteor showers can vary in their peak times, with some reaching their maximums for just a few hours and others for several nights.
It is best to use your naked eye to spot a meteor shower. Binoculars or telescopes tend to restrict your field of view. You may need to spend about half an hour in the dark to allow your eyes to get used to the reduced light. Stargazers should be warned that moonlight and weather can obscure the shows. In this case, there are usually meteor live streams hosted by NASA and Slooh.
The International Meteor Organization lists a variety of meteor showers that can be seen in 2020. Or, you can find more information on some of the showers this year that are most likely to be seen below: