A meteor shower will be visible on Tuesday evening, December 13, and early Wednesday morning, December 14. Named the Geminid meteor shower because the meteors appear to be coming from the direction of the constellation Gemini, this is usually one of the two best displays of meteors during the year.
The ideal time to view the shower is from about 1:00 a.m. to 3:00 a.m. Wednesday morning, when Gemini is highest in the sky. But, the display should be fairly good any time after about 9:00 p.m. Tuesday evening until the first hints of sunrise at about 5:30 a.m. Wednesday morning. Unfortunately, this year the near-full moon will make it difficult to see the fainter meteors.
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 to view and give your eyes at least ten minutes to fully dilate. Sit in a comfortable chair and face northeast 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.
Due to the moon’s interference, it will be difficult to predict how many “shooting stars” you might see. After yours eyes dilate (as much as they can in this year’s bright moonlit sky), my best guess is that you will probably see a bright and often colorful “shooting star” every two to five minutes (and sometimes more frequently than that).
Bright planet Jupiter will set in the west at about 3:00 a.m. and bright planet Saturn will rise in the east at about that same time, so you might see them–depending on what time you go out to view the meteor shower.
If you miss the Tuesday night/Wednesday morning event, you probably will be to see some Geminid meteors for a few days 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 of Physical Sciences, Emeritus (sort of)
Napa Valley College