How to Watch the Geminid Meteor Shower Tonight

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
Dec. 13 2013 1:05 PM

Geminid Meteors Peak Tonight!

Geminid
A Geminid flashes past Sirius and Orion during the 2009 shower. This is part of a lovely time-lapse video; click to watch.

Photo by Babak Tafreshi.

If you’re looking for a way to see an amazing sight while simultaneously freezing your butt off, do I have the meteor shower for you: the Geminids!

This annual shower peaks tonight, when there should be very roughly 100 meteors per hour. However, the Moon doesn’t set until after about 3 a.m. local time, so it’ll wash out the fainter meteors unless you stay up very late. You probably won't see that many, but certainly a dozen or more an hour isn't too much to hope for.

Advertisement

Watching a shower is pretty easy; all you have to do is go outside, look up, and be patient. Shooting stars are somewhat random, so you might not see any for a few minutes, then you’ll see three in a row. The longer you wait, the more you’ll see.

But there are some things you should know. I wrote a guide to meteor shower watching, and I’ve adapted it for the Geminids tonight. If you have clear, open skies, and follow the instructions below you, should have a celestial event to remember!

0) The Later the Better

(Yes, I’m starting with 0, because this one supersedes the others.) The Geminid meteor shower this year peaks around 06:00-07:00 UTC (1 a.m.-2 a.m. EST). You’ll see some earlier than that, but not many. In general, meteor showers are best after local midnight (literally, halfway from sunset to sunrise) because that’s when the Earth is facing into the oncoming meteors (like seeing more rain hitting your front windshield when you’re driving in a storm). Also, the Moon sets later so being out later means darker skies.

1) A Wide Open Sky

This is the biggest consideration. Meteors appear in random spots on the sky and can go from horizon to horizon. The more sky you can see, the more meteors you'll see. Try to avoid nearby buildings, trees, and so on.

If you trace the path of the meteors backward, they will appear to radiate from one point in the sky, located in the constellation Gemini (hence the shower name). This is the same effect as when you're driving a car through a tunnel and the lights on the walls and ceiling appear to come from the point ahead of you. A good view of Gemini will again up the odds of seeing more meteors. If you can find Orion, Gemini is to his upper left (for folks in the northern hemisphere).

No matter what, a big wide view is your best bet.

2) Dark skies

Meteors are generally not terribly bright. A few can be blazing, but most are about as bright as your average star, so you want to be away from lights. Your backyard might be fine, but make sure street lights are blocked and your house lights are off.

3) Time

Once you're outside, it takes about 20 minutes for your eyes to get fully adapted to the dark—your pupils dilate, letting in more light, and your eye produces a light-sensitive protein called rhodopsin. Both of these take time to fully kick in. So don't be disappointed if you see very few or no meteors right away. White light will bleach the rhodopsin, by the way, so if you need some light, use a flashlight with red cellophane covering the front. That will preserve your night vision.

4) A Lounge Chair

You need to be able to see a lot of the sky for minutes or hours, so you want to be comfortable. A chaise lounge or a folding beach recliner is a big plus. You can lie on the ground with a blanket if you want, but comfort is important if you're going to be out for a while. The ground tends to be cold at night and wet too. Which reminds me ...

5) Blankets!

Hello, it’s December, and that means it’ll be cold. You won't be moving much, either, so you won't be generating much heat. Also, I strongly recommend ...

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

6) A Hat

You lose a lot of your body heat through your head, so a hat helps a lot. Plus, if you have a nearby street light, you can position your hat to block it. I've done that and it works! If you are hirsutely challenged as I am, this is a must.

7) Telescope, Binoculars

I recommend not using a telescope. Why not? Telescopes see only a small part of the sky, and meteors appear in random spots. I guarantee the best meteor of the night will happen while you are stooped over an eyepiece, and you'll miss it. However, Jupiter is well positioned for viewing, so this is as good a chance as any to do some observing, and I hate to tell people to not take advantage of a nice night! But be prepared to hear everyone else gasp and then mock you for missing the best meteor evah.

Binoculars are better. You can scan the sky, look for interesting things, and still be able to look around quickly if a bright meteor appears.

8) Star Chart

Hey, you're outside! Why not get familiar with the sky? You can find charts at local bookstores and online if you do a little searching. Orion, Gemini, Taurus, the Pleiades ... this is a fine time of year to be out looking for cosmic landmarks.

9) Rest

Oh boy, is this one important. It's after midnight, you're lying down, snuggled in a blanket, it's dark, and your eyes are focused on infinity. You start daydreaming a bit ... and the next thing you know, the Sun is rising and you're covered in frostbite.

Take a nap this afternoon if you want.

10) Friends, Family, Neighbors

Having other folks with you will help you stay awake, and honestly, the joy and beauty of a meteor shower is best shared. One of my favorite times ever with The Little Astronomer was watching the Leonids shower many years ago. She had a blast, and not just because she got to stay up until 3 a.m. with her dad ... but then again, that's a big part of it, too.

11) An Appreciation of What You Are Seeing

Read up on meteor showers, what they are, what we've learned from them. The Geminids are debris from an asteroid called 3200 Phaethon, which sometimes acts a bit like a comet (every other shower comes from debris sloughed off by comets). Asteroids orbit the Sun for billions of years, and you're seeing tiny parts of them—most no bigger than a grain of sand—as they slam into our atmosphere a hundred kilometers above you at speeds of up to 40 kilometers per second. How cool is that?

12) Wonder

This may be the best thing to bring, and the easiest. Meteor showers are simply wonderful. It's a cosmic show, and it's free, and it's very, very cool.

Enjoy.

TODAY IN SLATE

Culturebox

The Ebola Story

How our minds build narratives out of disaster.

The Budget Disaster That Completely Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

The Shooting Tragedies That Forged Canada’s Gun Politics

A Highly Unscientific Ranking of Crazy-Old German Beers

Education

Welcome to 13th Grade!

Some high schools are offering a fifth year. That’s a great idea.

Culturebox

The Actual World

“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.

Want Kids to Delay Sex? Let Planned Parenthood Teach Them Sex Ed.

Would You Trust Walmart to Provide Your Health Care? (You Should.)

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 22 2014 2:05 PM Paul Farmer Says Up to Ninety Percent of Those Infected Should Survive Ebola. Is He Right?
  Business
Business Insider
Oct. 22 2014 2:27 PM Facebook Made $595 Million in the U.K. Last Year. It Paid $0 in Taxes
  Life
The Eye
Oct. 22 2014 1:01 PM The Surprisingly Xenophobic Origins of Wonder Bread
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 22 2014 10:00 AM On the Internet, Men Are Called Names. Women Are Stalked and Sexually Harassed.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 22 2014 5:27 PM The Slate Walking Dead Podcast A spoiler-filled discussion of Episodes 1 and 2.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 22 2014 10:39 PM Avengers: Age of Ultron Looks Like a Fun, Sprawling, and Extremely Satisfying Sequel
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 22 2014 2:59 PM Netizen Report: Twitter Users Under Fire in Mexico, Venezuela, Turkey
  Health & Science
Wild Things
Oct. 22 2014 2:42 PM Orcas, Via Drone, for the First Time Ever
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.