Stargazer: Geminids, the best meteor shower of the year

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I was well into adulthood before I ever considered spending an entire night outdoors during December. Once I moved from the U.S. East Coast to a more temperate climate, however, I found myself doing this frequently. Why? Because I've since learned two things.

First, there's no such thing as cold weather, only poor clothing choices. When I was young I learned that to be warm I must wear a heavy coat. Not true. The secret is to dress in loose-fitting layers of appropriate fabrics that trap in body heat. I now find myself spending many winter nights each year under the stars and northern lights of the Arctic, where nighttime temperatures can plummet to well below zero Fahrenheit. Not a problem if one is dressed properly. To learn more about the subject, do a Google search on a phrase like "dressing for cold weather" and you'll find many great tips.

My second discovery was also a shocker. I had always believed that the year's best meteor shower was the Perseids of mid-August. Also not true. Sure the Perseids get all the press and are terrific, but that's because they occur during summertime when people are more inclined to spend nights outdoors. If you also believe this, watch the Geminids of mid-December just once and I bet you'll change your mind.

During the Perseid shower, sky watchers can often expect to see 50 or 60 meteors (aka shooting stars or falling stars) per hour — not a bad number in anyone's book. But during a typical Geminids shower, hourly numbers can reach as high as 100 or 120. Most impressive, however, is that the Geminids often produce brilliant fireballs that can light up the heavens, cast a shadow and sometimes even leave a smoky trail behind. You can use binoculars to watch the remains of these trails for several minutes as they twist and turn in upper atmospheric air currents.

The meteors of the Geminids will appear around the sky, but if you were to trace their paths backwards, those associated with the shower will all seem to radiate from a point within the constellation Gemini. This "radiant," as it's called, lies just west of the bright star Castor. During mid-December, Northern Hemisphere stargazers will see Castor and Gemini rise above the east-northeastern horizon during the early evening hours.

This year, the number of Geminids will peak during the night of Sunday, Dec. 13, and before dawn on Monday, Dec. 14, when the Earth slams head on into the swarm of meteoric particles left behind by the asteroid 3200 Phaethon. Great views should come for a few nights and mornings around this time, but the best show will should occur during the pre-dawn hours of Dec. 14.

To watch the shower, I recommend that you dress warmly, get away from bright city lights, lie back on a sleeping bag or lawn chair and scan the entire sky with your eyes. And don't forget a thermos of hot chocolate to make the sky show even more pleasant.

If you do these things, I'll bet that you'll agree that the Geminids are, indeed, the best shower of the year.

Visit Dennis Mammana at www.dennismammana.com.


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