As with many things in life, skywatching is all about timing. Consider the Geminid meteor shower, which is at its best on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, and might produce up to 80 or so meteors every hour.
The shower is typically one of the year’s best. It occurs when Earth flies through a stream of debris left behind by an asteroid. These tiny bits of dust ram into the atmosphere at tens of thousands of miles per hour, forming the glowing streaks of light known as meteors.
The Geminids aren’t named for their parent body, though. Instead, like all meteor showers, they’re named for the region of the sky from which they appear to rain into the atmosphere — in this case, the constellation Gemini. The meteors can actually appear in any part of the sky, so you don’t have to look toward Gemini to see them. But if you trace their paths back across the sky, they all intersect in Gemini.
Now here’s where that bit about timing comes in. This year, the Moon gets in the way. It’s about three-quarters full tonight, and it rises in mid-evening and remains in view the rest of the night. It’s so bright that its glare will overpower all but the brightest of the meteors.
To see much at all, you’ll need to get away from the extra glare of the city — streetlamps and other light sources make it all but impossible to see any meteors at all. So find a dark but safe observing location, bundle up, then try your luck at finding this busy but subdued celestial light show.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2011
For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.