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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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Geminid meteor shower to light up the skies

Weather permitting, the Geminid meteor shower should provide an interesting celestial display during the late night hours of Wednesday, Dec. 13.

"The meteors will appear to radiate from a point in the constellation of Gemini (the Twins) which will be high in the sky, almost directly overhead and well-situated for observing about midnight," said Kurt Anderson, professor of astronomy at New Mexico State University. "The peak of the shower will actually occur sometime after midnight, but the best viewing will occur during the darkest hours before the moon rises at about 1 a.m. on Thursday."

The majority of meteor showers are produced by small particles of debris (meteoroids) that occupy the orbit of a comet. However, in the case of the Geminid shower, the parent body, known as 3200 Phaeton, is classified as an asteroid, not a comet.

"This designation is somewhat controversial and some astronomers think that 3200 Phaeton is actually the debris core of an old comet," Anderson said. "In any case, once every year about mid-December, the Earth runs into the debris trail of 3200 Phaeton and the Geminid meteor shower is the result. The streaks of light we call meteors are produced as some of these meteoroids enter the Earth's atmosphere at very high rates of speed and are heated by the friction of the upper atmosphere."

As with all meteor showers, the Geminid will be best observed from a dark location. It is expected to produce between 10 and 100 meteors every hour, although time and location can impact the number of visible meteors.

Austin Craig
Dec. 1, 2006