Why 2020 is a superb 12 months for the Geminid meteors

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Do you have clear skies? Then you should definitely team up: The Geminid Meteors – one of the best, safest annual meteor showers – will peak this weekend … and near a new moon.

Gemini prospects for 2020

After a few years, one could not have wished for a better prospect for the Geminids. In 2020, the Geminids are expected to peak on Sunday, December 13th at 6:00 p.m. Universal Time (UT) / 1:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time (EST), with a projected zenith hourly rate (ZHR) of 120 East Asia is preferred in the morning hour with meteors per hour. Keep in mind, however, that the summit of the Geminids is wide … and meteor showers don’t read astronomical forecasts. Observers around the world are urged to keep an eye out for the Geminids in the morning hours before and after the summit.

Aspects for the 2020 Geminids near the expected apex of the shower on Sunday, showing the relative position of the Earth’s shadow to radiation from the shower, sun and moon. Photo credit: Dave Dickinson / Orbitron

The moon phase is almost perfect this year, as the new moon occurs just two days after the peak of the Geminids in 2020 and a total solar eclipse takes place over South America on the 14th.

The rising Geminids shine locally at 10 p.m. Image credit: Stellarium

In the 20th century, the Geminids were a relatively dark shower. Fast forward to the 21st century and the Geminids have intensified and take center stage as one of the strongest and best showers of the year, surpassing even the August Perseids. This happens when meteor streams develop over time.

A 2017 Geminid fireball. Photo credit: The virtual telescope 2.0.

What you see when you see a streak of meteorites through the sky is an ionized trail in the wake of a cosmic dust particle that flies through the faint upper atmosphere of the earth. Most of these are ancient streams of debris that are deposited by comets where their orbits intersect the earth’s path. These orbits develop as they interact with other planets (mainly Jupiter) and disperse, while other undiscovered, nodular lumps of debris find their way onto our planet’s path and make themselves known.

The source of the Geminids is actually the strange “rock comet” 3200 Phaethon. Discovered in 1983, this bizarre object is like a “baked Alaska” in orbit from 2.4 Astronomical Units (AU) (223.2 million miles or 359.2 million kilometers) to a scorching perihelion of 0.14 AU (13 million miles or 21 million kilometers) has been recorded once every 1.4 years from the Sun. Is 3200 Phaethon a trapped “dead cometary nucleus” or a previously unknown object? Whatever the case, the 3200 Phaethon appears to be shedding a lot of material and deserves another exam. Japan’s Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) mission DESTINY + (demonstration and experiment of space technology for INterplanetary VoYage flyby for Phaethon) was once proposed to explore this enigmatic object, potentially launching in 2024. The Geminids have been observed every December since mid-December -19. Century, although 3200 Phaethon was not recorded as the source for the shower until shortly after its discovery in the early 1980s by astronomer Fred Whipple.

3200 Phaethon as seen from the Arecibo Radio Observatory in 2017. Photo credit: Arecibo / NSF

Sigma Hydrid Fireball Photo Bomb (s)?

Another relatively dark shower will make itself felt in 2020: Several fireballs in early December were bound to the Sigma Hydride meteors. Based on the constellation of the southern half of the water of Hydrus, the water snake, the sigma hydrides generally hit a paltry zenith-hour rate of three per hour, just below the usual sporadic background rate … but several early fireball sightings suggest 2020 will be different could be. If you can’t trace a meteor back to the Geminids Ray near the bright star Castor (Beta Geminorum) in the constellation Gemini the Twins, you may have seen a rare Sigma Hydride meteor.

A Geminid composite / time-lapse over the LAMOST telescope in China from 2014. Photo credits and copyright: Steedjoy. Used with permission.

Don’t forget the Ursids

Another meteor shower in December is worth checking out. The Ursid meteors peak with a respectable ZHR of 15 right around the solstice on December 21st to the south. The source of the Ursids is the periodic comet 8P / Tuttle, but the source of the sigma hydrids is unknown.

A one-night animation of the Geminids 2017. Photo credit: The Virtual Telescope Project 2.0

Meteor watching is as easy as dressing warmly, reclining in a comfortable garden chair, and diligently observing the sky with a simple pair of ‘mk-1 eyeballs’. Look at a 45-90 degree angle on either side of the spotlight to catch long stately meteor trains in profile. It is true that after midnight towards morning you see more and more meteors if you stand on the forward-facing part of the earth and scoop a huge cavity with a width of 8,000 miles from space. The Geminids are a little different. The shower’s radiation is high enough that you can look for meteors a little earlier before midnight, around 10 p.m. local time. Be aware that these early meteors leave long, slow trails across the night sky and that the pace accelerates from midnight to dawn. Choose as dark a location as possible to maximize your chances of seeing as many Geminids as possible. Even the slightest amount of light pollution in the suburbs can significantly kill the number of meteors you see.

Waiting for a night of sky-gazing at the annual Nebraska Star Party. Photo credit: Dave Dickinson

Photographing meteors is as easy as using a wide angle lens with a tripod-mounted DSLR, taking long exposures (30 to 3 minutes), and viewing the results. I like to use an interval meter to automate the process. Be sure to check out our latest guide to shooting meteor showers on Astro-Gear Today.

A tarantula (!) Against the Geminid Meteors 2017 … Credit: The Virtual Telescope Project 2.0

Meteorite watching is an ideal 2020 destination: you can do it on your own or as a physically distant activity, with observers observing different areas of the sky.

Count how many meteors you see in a set period of time and you can add your observations to the science of meteoriticism by reporting your observations to the International Meteorological Organization.

Good luck and have a nice weekend with the Geminids 2020.

– Watch the Geminids live courtesy of astronomer Gianluca Masi and the Virtual Telescope Project starting December 13 at 10:00 PM UT / 5:00 PM EST.

Main image: 2017 Geminids grace the Arizona skies. Photo credit and copyright: Robert Sparks. Used with permission.

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