The last chance to see the gorgeous Geminid meteor shower may be tonight, and viewers who're prepared can catch up to 40 sightings an hour of the astronomical wonder if they're in the right spot and are well prepared.
Every December, Earth passes through the gorgeous meteoric debris left by an asteroid called 3200 Phaeton, creating a series of long glorious star-streaks and blazing fireballs that comprise the annual Geminid meteor shower.
During its peak on Dec. 13, these shooting stars gave viewers up to 120 sightings per hour. But for the next few days, the Geminid will continue to dazzle, and tonight's meteor shower is sure to be one of the best nights left.
According to NASA, Dec. 16 is the last day to see the fading meteors, and Dec. 15 may be the best time to catch some of the Geminid shower's most vibrant displays.
Before you head out to star-gaze, however, be sure to read through these ten tips on how to get the most out of your shooting star experience. Follow these suggestions, and you'll make the Geminid show one of the best meteor showers of 2011.
1. Know when to look.
At the Geminid meteor shower's peak, viewers can see up to 40 meteors per hour, and are so widespread that there's no need to stake out a particular corner of the sky, no matter where you are on Earth.
That said, meteor showers have peaks and ebbs, and knowing when to look for Geminid meteors will not only save time: it will get you the best views of the night.
For tonight's meteor shower, aim to head out well after dark. The shower's meteors are brightest between 10pm and 3am. The best time to spot the most meteors is around 1:00-1:30am, so stock up on coffee and be sure to let your boss know you're coming in late.
2. Block the moon.
Tonight's meteor shower may peak between 10pm and 3am, but something else will also be at its zenith: the moon.
The moon is brightest at the very moment the meteors will be most striking. On the positive side, the past few nights have seen some meteors shining as bright as Venus. Still, if you don't take the proper precautions, moonlight could end up blocking a good portion of your view.
To see the 2011 Geminid showers without being blinded by moonlight, try and find a spot where the moon is blocked from view by something stable like a tree trunk or a building. This makes the sky appear darker, and the meteors brighter. Then, focus your attention in the opposite direction of the moon to make the contrast even stronger.
3. Get over the hill and away from the city.
It sounds like a no-brainer, but it's amazing how much clearer the night sky becomes when you drive away from city lights, even if it's only a mile or so off.
Once you're in the country, improve your view even more by trekking up the nearest hill you can find and perching on the side of it that faces away from the brightest area below you. Even a tiny amount of light can go for miles with no barrier, but it can't go through earth.
4. Bring snacks.
One of the simplest tips, and one of the easiest to forget. The best way to enjoy a meteor shower is over several hours' time, and a grumbling stomach can break the mood even when you're viewing a dazzling night sky.
When you're packing food for the meteor show, try and bring snacks that are easy to get out and eat, so you don't miss any of the shower while you're rooting for your sandwich or pouring out a drink. Crunchy snacks are a fun way to break up the silence in between meteors, and hot food is always welcome on a cold December night.
5. Think warmth and comfort.
Remember: watching tonight's meteor shower means sitting dead still for hours on end.
Along with a thermos of tea or coffee for the night, be sure to bundle up in some layers, especially some good gloves, snug shoes and a warm hat. Wind can rip through you in the early hours of the morning, so try to leave your house several degrees hotter than you'd like: that way, when you reach the outdoors (especially on a hill, where the view and wind are both at their peak) you won't end up freezing.
When it comes to sitting or laying down to watch the Geminid shower, be sure to bring a thick blanket (or two) if you're planning on watching the meteor show horizontally. A better option may be to bring a lawn chair that leans back. That way, you get a great view of the shooting stars without having to worry about broken branches or wandering bugs.
6. Go with someone who'll be into it, or just go alone.
Watching a meteor shower can be one of the most beautiful experiences of the entire year... but the effect can be ruined if you're with a small child, a non-stop talker or someone who's bored.
If you can, try and find someone who knows a little something about the annual Geminid meteor showers, or who's eager to find out.
If you're watching the sky with someone who wants to know if the Geminid showers are named for the Gemini constellation (they are), consider yourself lucky. If you're watching with someone who's more busy texting than sky-scanning, you may want to rethink your partnership.
7. Take the best pictures of the 2011 Geminid meteor shower.
Though the wiki began as a way to watch the Leonid meteors, Wired.com has a great how-to guide for packing the right gear and setting up in the right place to get great photos of any meteor shower.
One gadget that doesn't require a lot of effort or cash? A star light, a night-vision flashlight that casts a dim red glow for night shots. Though you can pick up a star light at any camping store (or a store that sells telescopes), you can also make your own. Get a flashlight with an old-school light bulb instead of an LED and simply wrap some red-tinted plastic wrap around the lighted end.
8. Enhance the experience, part one: breaking out the iApps.
For those viewers who want to take tonight's meteor shower to the next level, NASA has developed a Meteor Counter app for the iPhone, iPad and iPod touch that lets star gazers track and report what they see, logging everything from time, location and brightness to recording an audio track with comments on the Geminid showers.
According to The LA Times, NASA plans to use the information its app collects to discover ne meteor showers, pinpoint specific debris streams and map how astreoids are distribute around Earth's orbit. If that isn't cool enough, the NASA app will reward amateur scientists with a news feed alerting users to upcoming showers and meteor peaks.
9. Enhance the experience, part two: Listen in to shooting stars.
If you think NASA's Meteor Counter app might prove too distracting, there's another option: listening to the Geminid meteor shower instead. Space Weather Radio has a new function that allows listeners to hear a ghostly ping sound every time a meteor passes by.
The sound comes from Air Force Space Surveillance Radar, which transmits a 216.98 MH signal into the sky 24/7. Objects passing overhead reflect the signal back to earth, meaning the sound of the Geminid shower is, in a way, the actual sound of a meteor in the night sky.
10. Be prepared for the next big meteor shower.
The annual Geminid meteor shower is something of a show-stopper, often sporting stunning fireballs that blaze across the night sky. Tonight is the best night to catch the last of the Geminid shower, but less than ten days after it ebbs, another less flashy cousin will also have its peak: the Ursid meteor shower.
According to Astronomy News, Ursid reaches its maximum before dawn on Dec. 23, 2011. And although this shower typically produces only about 10 meteors each hour, it can sometimes spike up to five times higher. Even better news? The New Moon won't hinder the view like it's doing immediately post-eclipse.