Nature contributes to the holiday season the next few nights with its own colorful light show: the Geminid meteor shower. The Moon isn't around to interfere, so it should be a good display.
Geminid meteors are bits of comet dust that speed into Earth's atmosphere. As they hit the atmosphere at up to 25 miles a second, these tiny particles vaporize, creating glowing streaks of light across the night sky. If you trace their paths across the sky, they all intersect in the constellation Gemini, the twins.
Geminid meteors were first seen in the mid-1800s. They increased over the next century, eventually rivaling the summer Perseids for best-meteor-shower honors. But their orbital path is slowly moving away from Earth's, so the Geminids may slowly fade away. By the 22nd century, they may vanish completely.
The Geminids should be at their best on Sunday night. The Moon is a thin crescent that doesn't rise until shortly before dawn, so it leaves nice, dark skies for the meteor shower.
To watch the Geminids, trade city lights for dark country skies. Locate Gemini, which rises in the northeast not long after sunset. The meteors appear to streak toward Earth from a point near Castor, the constellation's second-brightest star. But as they slice through the atmosphere, they can flash across just about any part of the sky. So all you have to do is bundle up and look up -- for some of nature's own holiday lightshow.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2001, 2004, 2009
For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.