Meteor shower to light up night sky on Thursday

Greg Redfern,

WASHINGTON – Starting at 9 p.m. on Thursday, skywatchers under a dark sky in the countryside should be able to see about 100 to 120 shooting stars each hour. The show will be bright enough that even those in the suburbs should be able to see about a dozen meteors per hour if they can find an area free of bright lights.

The Geminid Meteor Shower is a reliable performer that comes along at this time each year, and with the moon out of the night sky on Thursday, the show promises to be quite a sight. The shower’s peak will be on Thursday night and Friday morning, with a lesser number of meteors visible over the next few nights.

Watch it Live

Later tonight, NASA TV will air live video of the meteor shower from an astronomy camera at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

The Geminids are caused by dust that comes from what astronomers think may be an extinct comet, or maybe even a new category of solar system object — a “rock comet.” All other meteor showers are caused by comets and each year our planet, in its orbit around the sun, encounters about a dozen of these debris streams, creating the meteor showers we see.

Wednesday’s meteor shower is caused by a dead comet, the 3200 Phaethon, and has perplexed astronomers since it was discovered in 1983. The Geminid Meteor Shower was first observed during the Civil War but it took the space age to solve the mystery of where the shower originated.

You do not need any equipment or training to watch the shower. Just find a good spot free of lights and trees and lie down or sit in a reclining chair so you can look up. The key is to stay warm and comfortable as the night goes on.

The point in the sky from where the shower seems to radiate is the constellation Gemini the Twins, which is visible in the east at 9 p.m. and will rise higher in the sky migrating west as the shower progresses. The greatest number of meteors per hour is expected after midnight into Friday morning, just before dawn.

An unexpected bonus for this year’s Geminids is the possibility of a totally new meteor shower occurring at the same time. Astronomers think that a new cometary debris stream may have formed from a relatively new comet called Comet Wirtanen. Attempts will be made to confirm if there really is a new meteor shower, but it is possible that there will be even more meteors in the sky during the Geminids.

Enjoy this sky show with friends and family. Just make sure you stay warm and comfortable during.

Follow Redfern’s daily blog to keep up with the latest news in astronomy and space exploration.

Follow @WTOP on Twitter.

(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)

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