This piece was originally broadcast on Radio Scilly in December 2018
The Geminids are one of the year’s most spectacular meteor showers. You can see them radiating from star Castor, in constellation Gemini. Gemini represented the twins and looks a little like 2 stick figures. You can find it located near to the top – and to the left - of the unmistakeable Orion.
This year the peak of activity is tonight and tomorrow, so 13 and 14 December. The best time to be looking for Geminids is after midnight, though at the moment the forecasts aren’t looking promising for a clear night. That said, keep your eyes on the skies as even a short break in the clouds could reap rewards.
It’s estimated that, at the Geminids’ peak, you’ll be able to see up to 120 shooting stars an hour, if you’re in an area with very dark skies – which in Scilly, yes we are. It can be quite the light show with the Geminids appearing white, red, blue or even green. Though I’m not talking full on disco lights, more subtle differences in tone.
We might call them shooting stars but the bright streaks of light you’ll see (fingers crossed) whizzing across the sky have nothing to do with stars. Rather, they come from a stream of cosmic debris entering the earth’s atmosphere at extremely high speeds, whereupon they burn up, and voila, you get what looks like a falling star. Bonus fact: most meteors are smaller than a grain of sand, which indicates just how fast they are going, to create that much light!
The Gemenids source is unusual in that it’s from an asteroid – Asteroid 3200 Phaeton to be precise – rather than a comet. The main difference between asteroid and comet is simply what they are made from, because they both orbit the sun – albeit with rather irregular paths – and both are leftovers – as in they’re made from materials left over from the formation of our solar system more than 4.5 billion years ago. Nice.
Anyway, the real pleasure is in observing this December phenomenon for yourself – if not on Thursday or Friday then fingers crossed for the weekend or early next week. I hope you can catch a falling Geminid!