The famous Geminid meteor shower will sling bright shooting stars this December. But 2021 isn’t expected to be a spectacular year for the Geminids, as the shower’s peak on Dec. 13-14 arrives just a few days before the full moon.
When there is no interference from moonlight, skywatchers can see up to 150 meteors per hour on the night of the peak, according to the American Meteor Society. However, due to inference from moonlight, the 2021 Geminid meteor shower may only produce maximum rates of 60 to 120 visible meteors per hour, and many of them will appear quite faint, according to Space.com’s skywatching columnist Joe Rao. That’s because moonlight from the waxing, gibbous moon will overpower all but the brightest meteors.
Even after the peak, bright meteors may be visible for the next few nights. The best time to watch for the Geminids is about 2 a.m. in your local time zone.
The Geminids are considered one of the best meteor showers every year because the individual meteors are bright, and they come fast and furious. In 2020, because the shower’s peak coincided with the new moon, the Geminids proved to be one of the most spectacular meteor showers of the year. Although it is best visible from the Northern Hemisphere, Geminid meteors can also be spotted from the Southern Hemisphere.
The Geminid meteor shower is nearly 200 years old, according to known records — the first recorded observation was in 1833 from a riverboat on the Mississippi River — and is still going strong. In fact, it’s growing stronger. That’s because Jupiter’s gravity has tugged the stream of particles from the shower’s source, the asteroid 3200 Phaethon, closer to Earth over the centuries.
When to see them
The meteors tend to peak about 2 a.m. your local time wherever you’re observing from, but can be seen as early as 9-10 p.m.
The Geminids, as their name implies, appear to emanate from the bright constellation Gemini, the twins. To find Gemini in the Northern Hemisphere, look in the southwestern sky for the constellation Orion, the hunter, which is easy to spot by the three stars in the hunter’s “belt.” Then look just up and to the left of Orion to see Gemini, high in the southwestern sky. In the Southern Hemisphere, Gemini appears to the lower right of Orion and both will hang in the northwestern sky.
Although the meteors will appear to stream away from Gemini, they can appear all across the sky. For best results, you should look slightly away from Gemini so that you can see meteors with longer “tails” as they streak by; staring directly at Gemini will just show you meteors that don’t travel very far.
In fact, NASA’s all-sky camera captured some amazing Geminid views in 2018:
Where do they come from?
The Geminids are associated with the near-Earth object 3200 Phaethon, an asteroid that may have undergone a collision with another object in the distant past to produce the stream of particles that Earth runs into — creating the meteor shower.
The asteroid orbits the sun every 1.4 years. It occasionally comes close to Earth (at a safe distance) and also passes very close to the sun, inside of Mercury’s orbit and only 0.15 astronomical units from the sun. (An astronomical unit is the distance between the sun and the Earth: about 93 million miles or 150 million kilometers.)
Rocks in space that are about to collide with Earth’s atmosphere are called meteoroids. Those that streak through the atmosphere are called meteors, and if they reach the ground (which won’t happen with the Geminids, as the particles are too small to survive the trip) the rocks are called meteorites.
How to get the best view
Meteor showers don’t require binoculars or telescopes to view — just your bare eyes. Find a comfortable spot to lie on the ground, far away from lights and ideally in a dark-sky area. Bring a blanket and dress warmly if you’re in cold weather. Give your eyes about 20-30 minutes to adjust to the dark, then sit back and enjoy the show.
Editor’s note: If you capture an amazing view of the Geminid meteor shower or any other night sky view that you would like to share with Space.com for a possible story or gallery, send images and comments in to: firstname.lastname@example.org.