Geminid Meteor Shower 2012: When to Watch the Peak Thursday and Friday

"If the weather cooperates, we should have a memorable celestial display" this week, writes Napa Valley College professor of astronomy John Charlesworth. "A sleeping bag on a slightly inclined lounge chair is my favorite way to comfo

A meteor shower will be visible on Thursday evening, Dec. 13, and early Friday morning, Dec. 14. Named the Geminid meteor shower because the meteors appear to be coming from the direction of the constellation Gemini, this is often the best display of meteors during the year. 

The ideal time to view the shower is from about midnight to 4 a.m. Friday, when Gemini is highest in the sky. 

But, the display should be fairly good any time after about 9 p.m. Thursday until the first hints of sunrise on Friday morning. 

This year the moon's phase is New, which means there will be no moonlight to interfere with viewing the meteors. If the weather cooperates, we should have a memorable celestial display.

A meteor shower is an abundance of small bits of rock and dust entering Earth's atmosphere at high speed and being heated to incandescence. 

The resulting bright streaks of light are commonly called shooting or falling stars, though they have nothing to do with stars. This rocky/dusty material is debris from a comet or asteroid which passed through this part of space many years ago.  Each year, on the same date, Earth passes through this stream of celestial litter which causes this beautiful celestial display. 

Viewing a meteor shower is not difficult. Just find a fairly dark place from which you can view a large area of the sky. Keep lights out and give your eyes at least ten minutes to dilate. Sit in a comfortable chair and look high in the sky.  Do not use binoculars or anything else which might restrict your view of a large area of the sky. Dress warmly. 

Sitting within a sleeping bag on a slightly inclined lounge chair is my favorite way to comfortably watch for meteors. Be patient.

My best guess is that you will probably see a bright and often colorful “shooting star” every minute or two (and sometimes more frequently than that).  The very bright star-like object visible in the west is the planet Jupiter.

If you miss the Thursday night/Friday morning event, you probably will be to able see some Geminid meteors for a few nights before or after this peak. 

Watching a meteor shower is especially fun and exciting when you share the experience with others. Hope for clear skies!

Professor John Charlesworth, Napa's own "Star Man," teaches astronomy at Napa Valley College.

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