With Christmas less than two weeks away, your neighborhood is probably aglow with beautiful lights. However they will pale in comparison to nature's own light show, the Geminids. Though this annual celestial display that has been nicknamed the 900-pound gorilla of meteor showers has been visible since December 4th, their best showing will be on the night of December 13th and the early morning of the 14th, until about 2.00 am local time.
Named after the Gemini constellation they appear to radiate from, the meteor showers outweigh other dust streams by factors of between 5 to 500. That's because they do not originate from an icy comet like most meteors, but from the debris stream of an asteroid called 3200 Phaethon. As a result, the Geminids material is denser and tends to create longer and brighter showers. This also increases the possibility of a particularly large speck falling all the way down to the ground and become a meteorite.
While scientists know that the meteor showers are from 3200 Phaethon, they are not completely sure how the debris generated. They do however 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 are debris from the breakup. However, while icy comets, the source of other meteor showers like the Perseids leave behind a trail as they get closer to the sun and heat up, asteroids are not known to do the same.
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 - an asteroid that comes so close to the sun during its orbit that it gets scorched and sheds some of its gravel. When the small pieces of rocks, the size of a pea or fingernail, come in contact with earth's atmosphere, they burn up and transform into what we like to call 'shooting stars' or meteor showers. While that theory is plausible given the asteroid's unusual orbit, what still remains a mystery to scientists, is the volume of the meteors, which appear to be large in proportion to the observed amount of debris. While they may never be able to solve that, the one thing they do know for sure is that the show will be spectacular!
Though the best time to watch the Geminids is tonight, when about 100-120 meteors will be zooming down every hour, the shooting stars will be visible until December 17th. But in case you miss them, don't worry. According to experts, the light show will only get better over the next few centuries, as the earth's orbit gradually moves the planet closer to the core of Phaethon's trail of dust.
Resources: nvonews.com, csmonitor.com