In the 1860s, a new meteor shower punctuated the December sky. And for more than a century afterwards, it got better and better. But that trend won’t continue. The shower could begin to wane within a few decades, and by the next century it may fizzle completely.
The Geminid meteor shower is at its best tonight. At its peak, it should produce a hundred or so meteors per hour. Unfortunately, the bright Moon will wipe out most of its fireworks. But a few should be bright enough to shine through the glow.
The Geminids are bits of dust associated with an asteroid. The dust grains spread out along the asteroid’s orbital path. Earth intersects this path every December, so some of the dust grains slam into the upper atmosphere. They quickly vaporize, forming the glowing streaks of light known as meteors or shooting stars.
But the gravitational pull of Earth and the planet Jupiter are shifting the path of the dust grains away from the Sun. Calculations made decades ago show that the path began intersecting Earth’s orbit in the 1800s. But it could move beyond Earth’s orbit by the end of the century — bringing the Geminid meteor shower to an end.
For now, though, look for the shower beginning in mid- to late evening. It usually produces a few especially bright meteors, so it’s worth a look even through the moonlight. Some of those bright meteors continue for a night or two after the shower’s peak, providing some extra time to catch the fireworks.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2013