Ever spotted a shooting star – a streak of light across the night sky? Shooting stars are fragments of space rock (meteors) or dust, moving so fast that as they hit Earth’s atmosphere they heat up and glow. They are often created by trails of gas and dust left by comets which travel among the planets of the inner Solar System. At various times of the year, Earth intersects these trails and we see multiple dust particles burning up in the atmosphere as bright trails of light – meteor showers.
The annual Geminids meteor shower reaches its peak tonight (from as early as 9-10pm and into dawn tomorrow morning), it is one of the best meteor showers of the year, and this year is predicted to be extra spectacular; the Royal Observatory Greenwich is expecting up to 75 meteors an hour during the peak of the Geminids shower and a waning crescent moon means there won’t be too much light pollution. The Geminid showers are special and spectacular, rather than being created by a comet, they are formed from the dust trail of an asteroid called the 3200 Phaethon.
Seen across the world, the shower comes from the direction of the constellation Gemini and has been recorded annually since 1833. The showers themselves appear to have grown in intensification over that time, observed at 10-20 meteors an hour in the 19th century, there can be up to 120 shooting stars an hour in the 21st century. It is thought that at some point 3200 Phaeton was in a collision, creating a large quantity of asteroid dust and that Jupiter’s gravity is influencing the dust movement, pushing it closer towards Earth’s orbit, thereby increasing the amount of dust entering the atmosphere.
So how to observe the Geminids – wrap up warm, find somewhere comfortable to sit down away from light sources and wait! The meteor shower is seen with the naked eye. To help you find the Gemini constellation look at the night sky map at http://www.astronomy.co.uk/skymap or download an app like Sky Guide for iOS.
To find out more about the Geminids read articles in: http://www.skyandtelescope.com/observing/geminid-shower-2017/ and https://www.space.com/34921-geminid-meteor-shower-guide.html
Can’t stand the thought of going out into the cold – or maybe the weather is too bad in your area tonight? Never fear, technology is here! Various telescopes will be streaming the meteor shower live, including The Virtual Telescope 2.0 Project starting in Italy at 9pm our time and then moving on to their telescope in Arizona https://www.virtualtelescope.eu/webtv/ and Nasa at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama from about 11pm (5pm their time) http://www.ustream.tv/channel/nasa-msfc
But if you are brave enough to spend the night outdoors and fancy ‘shooting’ some shooting stars, with timelapse photography, this article by photography app makers PhotoPills will help https://www.photopills.com/blog/get-ready-shoot-last-great-meteor-shower-2015-geminids this video, taken by them of the Geminids in 2015 is the result of playing 647 still images at 24 frames per second.