The Geminid meteor shower will peak Friday, and stargazers who won't be able to see the event by looking up at the night sky can view two live streams, courtesy of SLOOH and NASA. Dubbed the "900-pound gorilla of meteor showers" by NASA, the Geminids are extraordinary for several reasons.
The Geminids, unlike other meteor showers, do not come from a comet parent. Most meteor showers, such as the Perseids or the Leonids, occur when Earth passes through the debris stream left behind by a comet as it orbits around the solar system. Comet Swift-Tuttle is responsible for the Perseids and Comet Tempel-Tuttle is associated with the Leonids. The meteor showers get their name from the perceived point of origin, such as the constellation Perseus or the constellation Leo.
But for the Geminids, it is an asteroid, 3200 Phaethon, that's responsible. The asteroid confirmed to be the parent of the Geminids was discovered in 1983. How it could create dust and debris for a meteor show remains a bit of a mystery, but new research has led to a possible explanation.
In a comet, the icy nucleus heats up as it approaches the inner solar system, and this leaves a stream of debris trailing behind. As Earth orbits around the sun, it crosses through these debris trails and the dust burns up in the atmosphere.
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Observations from NASA's Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory, or STEREO, as 3200 Phaethon made its way around the sun in 2009, 2010 and 2012 captured the asteroid ejecting debris, reports SkyMania. While it is still unclear how the debris gets ejected, the researchers suspect that the heat of the sun is causing cracks in the rocky nucleus, which leads to enough dust being ejected to cause a meteor shower, reports SkyMania.
Geminid meteors are also much heavier than others. Bill Cooke of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office said, "When we add up the amount of dust in the Geminid stream, it outweighs other streams by factors of five to 500." Due to the size of the meteors, the Geminids are known for fireballs, extremely bright and fast-moving meteors. The peak of the Geminids is expected to bring between 100 and 120 meteors per hour, while most other showers give off 40 to 60 meteors per hour.
For those who can escape the bright lights of the city, the Geminids are fairly easy to see. The peak occurs just after midnight and it is recommended that gazers spend some time getting their eyes adjusted to the dark before the prime period. After that, it's a matter of just looking at the night sky, although an almost-full moon may prevent some fainter meteors from being seen. SpaceDex recommends picking a spot in the sky away from the moon to observe more meteors.
If looking up at the night sky is not an option, try the SLOOH and NASA live streams for the Geminids. SLOOH's live stream originates from the Canary Islands and begins at 5:30 p.m. EST, 2:30 p.m. PST.
NASA has night owls covered with an overnight chat with Cooke, Danielle Moser and Rhiannon Blaauw. The live stream and hangout begins at 11 p.m. EST and ends at 3 a.m. EST. The live stream starts at the same time and can be viewed below.