Australia, we are in luck. The Geminid meteor shower is making its annual appearance in our skies, and all 41+ meteors an hour (if you’re lucky enough to be in the Top End) will be brighter than ever, thanks to the moon taking a hike for the event. Tonight marks the “peak” of the shower – here’s how you can watch here in Australia.
“With August’s Perseids obscured by bright moonlight, the Geminids will be the best shower this year,” said Bill Cooke with NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office. “The thin, waning crescent Moon won’t spoil the show.”
Dr Tucker from the ANU Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics agrees. “This year, because the Moon will have already set, the sky will be nice and dark and so we will be able to see lots of faint, small meteors.”
So What Are The Geminids, Anyway?
When Earth passes through the debris left by a comet and it hits our atmosphere, you get the stunning sky displays that are that debris burning up – meteor showers.
The Geminids are one of the more exciting meteor showers, not only because they are viewable by everyone on Earth, but because for a long time, they were part of a greater scientific mystery.
Astronomers always thought 3200 Phaeton was an asteroid, since it lacked one the major defining features of a comet – ice. It turns out 3200 Phaeton simply travels closer to the sun than other comets, too close to cultivate ice.
So close in fact that Phaethon’s surface is baked by radiation 50 times stronger than what reaches Earth’s atmosphere. As it reaches the other extreme of it’s orbit, it drastically expands.
This contraction and expansion gives 3200 Phaeton a distinct rocky surface, and it has recently been reclassified as an extinct or “rock” comet.
“Phaethon’s nature is debated,” said Cooke. “It’s either a near-Earth asteroid or an extinct comet, sometimes called a rock comet.”
Now The Geminids – this is what we get when Earth’s atmosphere moves through the debris from Phaeton. Since the debris is rockier, they last longer and shine brighter than regular meteors.
Once the meteor shower only hardcore space nerds would stay up to see, the first sighting was 150 years ago, with a rapid growth in the number of meteors so too the viewers have grown.
It is one of the rare meteor showers that can be seen from both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. Distance from the equator, how close you are to city lights and interference from the moon can all impact on how spectacular your view is.
When To Start Watching
The shower will last a total of three days, rising and then building to a peak. They rose last night, but the peak lasts for a little over a day before declining in meteor numbers for the rest of the shower.
These were the Geminids rising times for major cities across the country:
- Perth 8pm 11 meteors/hr
- Darwin 9:30pm 16 meteors/hr
- Brisbane 10pm 11 meteors/hr
- Adelaide 10:30pm 9 meteors/hr
- Sydney 11pm 9 meteors/hr
- Canberra 11pm 9 meteors/hr
- Melbourne 11pm 8 meteors/hr
- Hobart 11pm 6 meteors/hr
Now is still a good time to get your camera setup sorted, if you’re planning on capturing a time lapse. Check out Gizmodo’s tips for shooting the night sky if you are looking for guidance on how to capture a stunning image.
The frequency of the meteors will continue to increase as the night goes on.
Peak time is when you want to be setting your alarm for, though. This will happen in the early hours of Friday 15 December (that’s tonight, folks).
- Perth 12:30am 27 meteors/hr
- Darwin 2am 41 meteors/hr
- Brisbane 2:30am 27 meteors/hr
- Adelaide 3am 22 meteors/hr
- Sydney 3.30am 22 meteors/hr
- Canberra 3.30am 22 meteors/hr
- Melbourne 3.30am 19 meteors/hr
- Hobart 3.30am 14 meteors/hr
Where To Look
When the Geminids start to rise, keep an eye on the horizon where the meteors can make their way across the entire sky. It can take your eyes some time to adjust to the darkness – up to half an hour. Don’t tempted to check your phone or it could reset your vision and you’ll miss some meteors!
The Geminids appear to come from close to the bright star Castor, one of the two brightest stars in Gemini (hence the name “Geminids”).
“When you see a meteor, try to trace it backwards,” said Cooke. “If you end up in the constellation Gemini there’s a good chance you’ve seen a Geminid.”
Gemini can found below the constellation of Orion, as seen from the southern hemisphere. It rises in the north-east in the late evening, then passes through north to the north-west as the night progresses.
Once you’ve found the radiant, turn your gaze around 30 to 45 degrees away, either to the left or the right (look towards the direction with the least light pollution for the best results). Then look about 30 to 45 degrees above the horizon.
Looking in this area will give you the best chance of seeing the largest number of meteors before they burn up.
With more meteors than ever predicted, a glorious dark sky and (fingers crossed) fabulous weather, 2017 is certain to produce some incredible images.
If you capture a timelapse, we’d love to see it! Post it in the comments below.