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Though the comet of the century, ISON, may have fizzled away, the dependable annual Geminid showers have arrived and will be in full blossom starting today, Thursday, December 12th, all the way through to Monday, December, 16th. Nicknamed the 900-pound gorilla of meteor showers by NASA, they outweigh other dust streams by factors of between 5 to 500!
What's most interesting about the Geminid meteor showers is that they are not a debris stream from a comet, as is usually the case, but those from an asteroid called 3200 Phaethon. Though scientists are not quite sure what causes the stream they have a few theories.
One is that the 3-mile wide 3200 Phaethon was once part of a bigger asteroid called Pallas and that the showers might be debris from the breakup. However, while icy comets, the source of other meteor showers like the Perseids have been known to leave behind a trail when they get closer to sun and get heat up, asteroids are not known to leave debris behind.
This has led some researchers to speculate that 3200 Phaethon may be part of a new category of space objects that scientists plan to classify as 'rock' comets - essentially an asteroid that comes so close to the sun during its orbit that it gets scorched and sheds some gravel debris. When these come in contact with the Earth's atmosphere, they turn into what we call 'shooting stars' or meteor showers. But when this theory was investigated, the scientists found that the debris generated was not enough to create the spectacular meteor show that we witness, year after year.
Whatever the cause, the result is an amazing annual celestial treat for all of us! Because the Geminids are rock debris they are more durable than those produced by icy comets. That means that they can survive even in the lower atmosphere, which is the reason they are so clearly visible.
Experts say the best time to watch this year's show will be on the nights of December 13th and 14th when about 100 to 120 meteors will be shooting down every hour. Though they can viewed starting about 11pm, NASA meteor expert Bill Cooke recommends trying to catch the show an hour before sunrise, when the moon has set the skies are pitch black. And don't even bother grabbing binoculars or telescopes - Simply lie on your backs and enjoy the show. Oh, and don't forget to make a wish or two - They are bound to come true.
Resources: science.NASA.gov, examiner.com,CBSnews.com