How to see the Geminid meteor shower

Follow our observing guide to make the most of one of the best meteor showers of the year, and see a host of shooting stars lighting up the winter sky.

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The Geminids is one of the most prolific meteor showers of the year.
Credit: Pete Lawrence

The night of 13/14 December 2017 will be a great time to see shooting stars, as the Geminids meteor shower is due to put on a spectacular show.

Meteor showers are one of the easiest astronomical events to observe, as the only equipment you need is your own eyes, making it the perfect opportunity to get both children and adults excited about astronomy.

Below, we reveal how to make the most out of the 2017 Geminids.

 

What is a meteor shower?

Meteor showers usually occur when the Earth passes through the trail of debris left by a comet.

The Geminids are unusual, however, in that the trail of debris was left behind by an asteroid, 3200 Phaethon.

As well as the Geminid meteor shower, this month also grants a rare chance to see Phaethon itself, as it passes a mere 10 million km from Earth, its closes approach in 40 years.

The asteroid will reach its brightest on 16 December, mag.+10.7, and should be visible with a small telescope.

For more advice on how you can observe it yourself, check out the Sky Guide in the December 2017 issue of BBC Sky at Night Magazine.

 

Where can I see the Geminids?

For the best views, find a place that is dark and away from light pollution, such as a location away from towns and cities, provided it is safe to do so.

If you are lucky enough to live under dark skies and can observe from the comfort of your own garden, turn off the lights in your house so that they don’t spoil the view.

It will take around 20 minutes for your eyes to dark adapt, but hopefully after a little wait, you should start to see meteors shooting across the sky.

Remember: clear nights are cold nights. You will be sitting still for a long time, so wrap up warm, bring something to eat and perhaps a hot drink as well.

 


The radiant of the Geminids comes from just beside the bright star Castor.
Credit: Pete Lawrence

 

How do I find the Geminids?

The Geminids are so called because they seem to radiate out from the constellation of Gemini (known as the 'radiant').

To find Gemini, imagine a line between Orion’s right foot (Rigel) and left shoulder (Betelgeuse), then carry that line on for around the distance between your thumb and pinkie finger stretched out.

There should be a pair of bright stars here, Castor and Pollux – the ‘heads’ of Gemini’s twins.

The radiant is just by Castor, but you want to look around this region rather than directly at it.

 

When is the best time to view the Geminids?

Some shooting stars will be visible all evening, however Gemini is fairly low in the sky until at least 20:00 (UTC) and will be highest around midnight.

This year the Moon is a slim waning crescent during the shower and won’t rise until 04:00 (UTC), meaning the sky will remain dark for most of the night.

 

 How many meteors can I expect to see?

The Geminids have a zenithal hourly rate (ZHR) of 120 meteors per hour. However, this is only the number of meteors expected under perfect conditions. 

In reality, you can expect to see between 35-55 meteors per hour if you are under a dark sky, and 14-22 if you are somewhere with less perfect skies.

 

All you need to do now is get out there and enjoy the show!


 

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