Science News has an excellent story by Ken Crowswell on the Geminid Meteor Shower which peaks this Sunday night (December 13) when:
…countless meteors will shoot across the sky as space particles burn up in our atmosphere and meet a fiery end. Most meteor showers occur when Earth slams into debris left behind by a comet. But not this meteor shower, which is likely to be the most spectacular of the year. Known as the Geminid shower, it strikes every December and arises not from a flamboyant comet but from an ordinary asteroid — the first, but not the last, linked to a meteor shower.
…Unlike the Perseid meteors, which people have been observing for nearly 2,000 years, the Geminids are relatively new. First reports of their existence came from England and the United States in 1862. The shower in those days was weak, producing at most only one or two dozen meteors an hour. During the 20th century, however, the shower strengthened. Nowadays, at the shower’s peak, a single observer under a dark sky can see more than 100 meteors an hour. That’s better than most Perseid performances.
A heat-seeking spacecraft named the Infrared Astronomical Satellite discovered a small asteroid & Harvard astronomer Fred Whipple noticed it followed the same path around the sun as the particles in the Geminid meteoroid stream:
The newfound asteroid, Whipple declared, must be their long-sought source. The find also explained why the meteoroids were so dense: They come from a space rock rather than an icy comet.
The asteroid revolves around the sun every 1.43 years and comes very close to the sun, cutting well inside the orbit of Mercury, the innermost planet. Astronomers therefore christened the asteroid Phaethon, a son of Helios the sun god in Greek mythology. At its farthest, Phaethon ventures beyond the orbit of Mars and reaches the asteroid belt, home of the largest space rocks, between the paths of Mars and Jupiter.
There’s so much more right here – a truly excellent article if you have the time!
I’ve featured this photo Ken took in December of 2012 before – he’s one of the best for night sky pics! As we’re heading into the holidays, definitely consider one of Ken’s Leelanau calendars – they’re fantastic! Follow Ken on Facebook for the latest & see more in his massive Skies Above gallery on Flickr.