1. The best meteor shower of this year is upon us. The Geminids began on Dec. 4 and run through Dec. 16.
Several meteor showers happen every year, but the Geminid meteor shower consistently has some of the largest numbers of shooting stars during its peak. And this year the moon is so small that it won’t give off too much light.
"With August's Perseids obscured by bright moonlight, the Geminids will be the best shower this year," Bill Cooke of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office said in a statement. "The thin, waning crescent Moon won't spoil the show."
2. Tonight is the best time to watch, between the night of Dec. 13 and early morning of Dec. 14, when there’s peak activity. There will be about 120 meteors, possibly more, shooting across the sky per hour, according to NASA.
3. The Geminids will be visible worldwide. An ideal viewing spot should be far from city lights where there are clear skies.
“If somebody can get to a dark sky sight with an open sky — that’s usually the best thing,” Marc Bremmer, president of the Midlands Astronomy Club, told BuzzFeed News. Then just lay down and look up.
There are a couple different strategies for spying the meteors. One is to stare at the same section of the sky, and the other is to scan across a wider area, said Ian Dell’antonio, a physics professor at Brown University.
4. If you don’t want to go outside, tune in online. BuzzFeed News will livestream views of the Geminid meteor show from Slooh’s network of cameras and telescopes across Europe from 6-8 p.m. PST on the BuzzFeed Science Facebook page.
5. Most meteor showers are composed of rubble, dust, and other debris that has previously come off of a comet. But in this case, the shower will spring from material that’s already broken off of an asteroid called 3200 Phaethon.
Comets are thought to have formed in the outer solar system and are a mix of mostly ice and rock. In contrast, asteroids likely formed in the inner solar system and are rockier. In either case, small pieces of a comet or asteroid can come off and then linger in the parent object’s orbit. If this orbit intersects with Earth’s orbit, this debris catches fire, “leaving a streak of light we call a meteor or shooting star,” according to Cooke. “If any part of the meteoroid makes it to the ground, that piece is called a meteorite.”
6. All the debris, rock, and dust that is lighting up our night sky for this meteor shower likely broke off of Phaethon roughly 800 years ago, according to NASA’s Cooke.
7. If you miss the show tonight, you might catch a view of Phaethon on Dec. 16, when it will be at the point in its orbit closest to Earth.
Just because the Geminid meteor shower happens every year doesn’t mean its parent asteroid is nearby. But this year it is, and it's coming within about 6 million miles of Earth. While Phaethon won’t be visible to the naked eye at that point, it can likely be seen through most telescopes.
8. The Geminids keep getting better and better, and you can thank Jupiter for this.
The Geminids activity is “slowly increasing,” according to a new study where experts reviewed visual observations of the meteor shower from 1985 to 2016 and video observations from 2011 to 2016.
“Both the peak intensity and the total number of meteoroids contained in the shower are increasing with time,” NASA’s Cooke explained to BuzzFeed News. “The Geminids are getting more visually impressive with time.”
So what’s causing the upward shift in activity? Jupiter! Specifically, the large planet’s gravity is shifting the denser part of the debris stream closer and closer to Earth's orbit over time.
9. Phaethon was discovered in 1983. No one knows exactly where it comes from, but there are two competing theories.
Scientists initially thought Phaethon, which is three miles long, used to be a comet that has since lost most of its ice. According to a newer and competing theory, Phaethon broke off of a larger asteroid, possibly in a collision with an inner planet.