On any given night, far from bright city lights, there’s a chance that you’ll see a beautiful streak shoot across the sky as a meteor flies overhead. But on special dates scattered throughout the year, skywatchers can catch a multitude of flares as meteor showers burst in the darkness.
The next event is the Geminids, which lasts until Dec. 17, but reaches its peak, on Wednesday, Dec. 13, into the morning of Thursday, Dec. 14.
Meteor showers occur when our planet runs into the debris fields left behind by icy comets or rocky asteroids going around the sun. These small particles burn up in the atmosphere, leading to blazing trails of light. The regularity of orbital mechanics means that any given meteor shower happens at roughly the same time each year, with the changing phases of the bright moon being the main variable affecting their visibility.
Often one of the best and most reliable showers on the calendar, the Geminids will occur during a new moon this year, providing ideal conditions as long as the weather cooperates.
Viewers in northern latitudes should be able to start seeing the shower in the evening after sunset, while the action begins for those in the Southern Hemisphere after midnight. Rates could be as high as 150 meteors per hour.
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How to see a shower
The best practice is to head out to the countryside and get as far from artificial light sources as possible. People in rural areas may have the luxury of just stepping outside. But city-dwellers have options, too.
Many cities have an astronomical society that maintains a dedicated dark sky area. “I would suggest contacting them and finding out where they have their location,” Robert Lunsford, the secretary general of the International Meteor Organization, said in an interview with The New York Times in 2022.
Meteor showers are usually best viewed when the sky is darkest, after midnight but before sunrise. To see as many meteors as possible, wait 30 to 45 minutes after you get to your viewing location. That will allow your eyes to adjust to the dark. Then lie back and take in a large swath of the night sky. Clear nights, higher altitudes and times when the moon is slim or absent are best. Mr. Lunsford suggested a good rule of thumb: “The more stars you can see, the more meteors you can see.”
Binoculars or telescopes aren’t necessary for meteor showers, and in fact will limit your view.
How meteor showers form
Each shower peaks on a certain date when Earth is plowing into the densest portion of the debris field, though in some cases many meteors can still be seen before or after that specific night.
A shower is named for a constellation in the part of the sky it appears to streak from. But there’s no need to be perfectly versed in every detail of the celestial sphere. Meteors should be visible all over the sky during any given shower.