According to some interpretations of the Mayan calendar, the world may end on December 21. Others say that the turning of this chronicle of time is actually a reason for celebration. Whether you are paying attention to either of those predictions, you should know that one thing for certain. The sky will appear to be falling tonight.
The Geminid meteor shower will perform a spectacular light show (if the sky is clear). The annual performance will be particularly special this year because it occurs during a new moon. In that phase, the moon is lined up between the earth and the sun, so it doesn't reflect any light.
Some years, bright moonlight can wash out the viewing of "shooting stars," but it will not this time.
Shooting stars, as meteors are often called, are actually particles of rock and debris that vaporize and give off light as they enter the earth's upper atmosphere. Because of their small size and rapid speed, nearly all of these particles are destroyed in the process. If one happens to make it to the ground, it is called a meteorite.
Shooting stars can appear in any season. But there are peaks of meteor activity called meteor showers that occur at somewhat predictable times such as mid-December (Geminid), mid-November (Leonid), and mid-August (Perseid). The showers are named for the constellations that appear in the region of the sky where the meteors radiate from.
The actual origin of the meteors is usually a passing comet. However, it was discovered in 1983 that the parent body of the Geminid meteors is an asteroid, or minor planet, about 3 miles across.
This was the first time an asteroid had been definitively linked to a meteor shower, and astronomers are still exploring why and how this might be happening.
The Geminids were first observed and recorded in 1862. The number of meteors seen in this shower gradually increased during the first 100 years. This year, during peak viewing, if you are in a place that is dark enough, you may be able to see 50 to 120 meteors per hour streak across the night sky.
The best viewing will be tonight, starting around 9 p.m., and the meteors will increase from midnight until about 3 a.m. If the weather doesn't cooperate or you aren't able to get out during this time, meteors will be visible through Tuesday, just not at the same rate.
For ideal viewing, find a place where it is really dark -- a place that has no or minimal light pollution. Look to the east, where the twin stars Castor and Pollux make up the constellation Gemini. Don't worry if you aren't familiar with these stars or constellation. You should be able to tell where they are by looking for the point of origin of the shooting stars.
Anywhere you look will give chnces to see the streaks of light, but when you look to the east, it will appear that the meteors are speeding right at you.
Celestial viewing at this time of year requires plenty of warm clothing. Blankets or sleeping bags can also help to keep you comfortable.
It's a good idea to bring out some chairs, because sitting on the ground can get pretty chilly. A thermos full of something hot to drink will also make your viewing experience more fun.
Other than that, there really isn't any special equipment required, so this is an activity that anyone can enjoy.
As we enter the darkest time of the year, and for many of us also one of the most hectic times, the Geminid meteor shower provides a great opportunity to slow down and celebrate every bit of light, even if it is as fleeting as a shooting star.