Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Great Sky Show, No Respect

The Geminid meteor shower is the Rodney Dangerfield of celestial events -- it just gets no respect, thanks to pre-Christmas timing, chilly air, often cloudy skies and (some years) bright moonlight.

So why give the Geminids any consideration? In those infrequent years when weather and moon phase cooperate, this is usually the best of the annual meteor displays. During its peak after midnight on the 14th, at least 60 and as many as 120 meteors/hour are visible under dark skies. It's also the only meteor shower to put up decent rates -- say, 40-50 an hour -- before midnight. Even early to mid-evening it's possible to witness a few slow, graceful Geminid meteors. You can take a child out to see his/her first "shooting stars" and still get a decent night's rest.

The Geminid shower gets its name from the constellation Gemini the Twins, from which the meteors appear to eminate. This "radiant" is located near the bright twin stars (Castor and Pollux) that mark the heads of the brothers. But don't just stare at Gemini -- the meteors can appear anywhere in the sky.

(Geminid radiant around 9 p.m.;
click on picture for larger version)

A good place to view the shower is the Seven Hills Observatory, a little west of Kearney. Weather permitting, they'll open at 7p Monday the 13th for telescope viewing -- not of meteors, but of Jupiter and the Moon. While you're not looking through scopes, scan the sky and you'll likely see at least a few Geminids, despite moonlight. (Before coming out, contact Mark at Seven Hills; see the link for details. And dress warmly!)

And if you can wait for the Moon to set (~ 1:15 a.m on the 14th.) you're really in for a show. No doubt you'd give the Geminids at least some of the respect they so richly deserve.

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