Hope for clear skies: Geminid meteors peak Thursday night

A special treat awaits skywatchers Thursday night into Friday morning. The Geminid meteor shower will peak sometime after midnight, throwing off an estimated 50-100 streaking meteors an hour.

A second, less intense shower follows Friday night.

Named the Geminids because they appear to come from a point in the sky in the constellation Gemini, they are actually leftover debris from an asteroid called 3200 Phaethon. According to Space.com, "A stream of dust broke off the 3-mile-wide asteroid several centuries ago, likely from a collision with another space rock."

For centuries, the stream was not anywhere near Earth's orbit. But then around the 1830s, according to Space.com, the gravity of Jupiter, which had been shifting the stream steadily over the centuries, affected it enough to shove it into our orbit. As Jupiter's gravity has continued to affect the stream, it's pushed it even closer to us, meaning we get more meteors.

And because the debris is from an asteroid and not a comet, as is common, the meteors are heavier and burn more brightly when they hit our atmosphere.

So what's the prognosis for those of us who want to wait up and try to catch some of these shooting stars?

The good news is that the new moon sets around 10, so you won't have its light to contend with.

But while the East should get a nice view of the shower, according to Accuweather.com, conditions in Florida are shown on a map as "poor." The forecast calls for partly cloudy skies and a low of 58 in the bay area.

But if you want to take a chance, the best time to see the shower is between midnight and 2 a.m. Veteran meteor watchers also know that you'll need to find a place to watch that's as far away from artificial light as possible -- preferably in a rural area. You'll need about 20 minutes for your eyes to adjust to the dark, so allow at least an hour to scan the skies.

The meteors will come from all directions, so EarthSky.com recommends a healthy dose of patience as you sit back in a reclining lawn chair and peer toward the heavens.

And if you miss them? It still might be possible to see a celestial event. EarthSky.com reports that all five visible planets will be present Thursday night: Mars and Jupiter will be in the evening sky; Saturn will rise around 4 a.m.; and just before dawn, Venus will rise in the eastern sky, followed by Mercury about a half-hour later.

Hope for clear skies: Geminid meteors peak Thursday night 12/12/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 12, 2012 2:24pm]

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