The popular Perseid meteor shower may get the fair-weather attention, but the real show comes in winter.
Most amateur stargazers huddle by the fireplace in December, when the Geminids rain debris above the Earth's atmosphere. A winter wallop has dropped temperatures to freezing in some parts of the nation, but don't let a difference of a few degrees Fahrenheit keep you from seeing the night show that NASA considers the "best meteor shower of 2009."
The shower (nearly) ends a stellar year for skywatching on a high note—which is appropriate, given that 2009 is the International Year of Astronomy. Meteor showers and plenty of other space-related phenomena captured cyberspace imagination this year. Just a few:
- Annular solar
eclipse—just a partial (January 26)
- Poor little Mars rover Spirit gets stuck (April 23...and still spinning its wheels)
- Hubble Space Telescope, repaired (May 18)
- Six crew members emerge from isolation on a fake spacecraft (July 14)
- Remembering the first step: Apollo mission's 40th anniversary (July 20)
- Solar eclipse spurs parties and prayers (July 22)
- Perseids keeps stargazers' necks happily craned (August 12-13)
- A deliberate crash landing on the moon (October 9)
- Pool party! There's water on the moon (November 13)
- Leonids light up the sky (November 17)
Catching the Last Shooting Stars
As for the Geminids, patient stargazers might've already caught its beginnings on December 6, but the meteor shower reaches its peak on the nights of December 13 and 14. For those disappointed by November’s Leonid show, the outlook for the current Geminid shower, which lasts until December 18, is good.
Astronomers believe the Geminids are increasing in intensity every year, yielding 120-160 meteors per hour during the shower. Astronomy magazine expects great conditions for viewing "100 'shooting stars' per hour—an average of nearly two per minute." People in China and Indonesia have the orchestra seats for the Geminid show, and might be able to see more than "300 meteors per hour."
You don’t need a telescope to see the streaks shooting across the heavens. For optimal viewing, NASA pinpoints 12:10 a.m. EST/9:10 p.m. PST, and suggests going somewhere away from the “light pollution” of cities and towns, to an area dark enough to see the stars clearly. Keep your eyes roaming all areas of the sky to spot a meteor. (And dress warmly, bring a blanket, and fill up on hot drinks.)
No Comet Here
At their best, meteor showers provide an intense display of the violence of the cosmos, at a safe distance for earthlings to watch. Meteors are streaks of light created by particles of debris from comets and other celestial bodies hitting the Earth's atmosphere. These particles, called meteoroids, can measure as small as a grain of sand to as large as a boulder.
Usually that space-dust dance comes from lively comets. The Geminid meteors are an exception: They emanate from a dead comet called 3200 Phaethon. As for their name, it's derived from the constellation Gemini, the area of the sky from which the meteors appear to originate.
Four hundred years ago, Galileo Galilei invented the telescope and Johannes Kepler came out with his 650-page documentation of Martian motion. That, according to the United Nations, is reason enough to call for a year-long celebration. The International Year of Astronomy hosted events all over the world, and the heavens apparently joined in and threw their own 2009 shows, like the solar eclipse that darkened the skies over Asia.
In the United States, NASA underwent a lot of scrutiny. But even as the bosses were evaluating its core mission, the agency got a few projects literally off the ground—and lots of Web attention: The buzziest may have been the highly risky (and rousingly successful) mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope. The oddest may have been a March contest for naming a wing of the International Space Station: NASA opted for Tranquility over the more popular "Stephen Colbert," but the satirical TV host got a space-station treadmill named after him.
The Americans weren't the only busy ones: Selected Russian and European volunteers willingly isolated themselves for 105 days here on Earth, to prove their Mars mettle (and next year, the lucky crew gets to spend 520 days in isolation). And tourists who can afford the airfare to the International Space Station always get lots of envious queries—the first clown in space proved no exception this year.
Once in a Blue Moon
The sky shows aren't over yet. The Ursid meteor shower gets its turn December 22, the Pleiades will brighten up the night on December 29, and a blue moon will entertain New Year's Eve revelers. (And no, the moon doesn't turn a shade of turquoise: The phrase just means a second full moon appears in the same month. But don't let that stop you from singing its praises.)