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Geminid meteor show will burn bright on Monday, Dec. 13

December 10, 2010

The constellation of Gemini, also known as the Twins. Photo courtesy www.sonoma.edu

In a couple of nights, the best meteor shower of the year will sweep down on the High Sierra, bringing stars to earth, as 60 to 80 meteors an hour streak across the sky.

The Geminid meteor shower, one of some half-dozen, annual, prominent meteor showers, begins in earnest in the very late evening of Dec. 13, although many meteor lovers have been seeing impatient Geminids for the past week.

“Sometimes we just glance through the swarm of dust that creates meteor showers. Sometimes we plow right through the middle of it. The Geminid meteor shower is one of those times,” said Dan Ruby, associate director for Reno’s Fleishman Planetarium.

Meteors occur when particles from the dust swarm hit the Earth’s atmosphere, burning through the friction in spectacular incandescence.

The Geminid meteors are so-called because they appear to originate from the constellation Gemini, also called the Twins, from what astronomers call the “radiant point.”

How cool is that for a name?

But appearances are deceiving in this case. Ruby notes that almost the entire night sky will be filled with the meteors come the night of Dec. 13.

“In this case, the dust swarm is very broad in shape, meaning the meteors will be coming from every possible direction,” he said.

The height of the show should be about midnight (just after the moon sets) on Monday, Dec. 13 to 2 a.m on Tuesday, Dec. 14.

“This is one of those “stay up late, not get up early shows,” Ruby said.

The meteors will be almost directly overhead in the Eastern Sierra, he said. The best place to watch them from is where buildings, mountains or trees do not block most of the sky.

The Geminids are one of astronomy’s big mysteries. Most meteor showers come from comets, but not the contrary Geminids.

Instead, they come from an asteroid named Phaethon, which acts nothing like an asteroid and has confounded astronomers because such a brilliant and huge meteor shower should not be able to arise from this particular asteroid.

And there’s more magic waiting for sky watchers in December, Ruby said.

On Dec. 20, the night before the Winter Solstice’s full moon of Dec. 21, a full lunar eclipse will be visible from the Eastern Sierra.

But that’s another story for next week.

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