The Geminid meteor shower is a very reliable annual meteor shower that will visit us again this week.
The next several nights are probably the best nights for watching with the peak morning is likely to be December 14, 2018, but the morning of December 13 might offer a good display, too, and meteor watchers have been catching Geminids for some nights now.
You can watch in the late evening, but the best viewing hours are typically around 2 a.m., no matter where you are on Earth. And this year there will only be a waxing crescent moon, so moonlight won’t wash out the darkness.
The meteors appear to come from (radiate from) the constellation Gemini, which rises around sunset and moves overhead into morning. The best views are usually between midnight and 4am.
The Geminids are slow-moving dust particles when they hit the Earth’s atmosphere. “Slow” is relative here – they are only moving at 22 miles per second. The friction with air molecules will burn them up and make a nice glow for us to watch.
These showers are caused by the object 3200 Phaethon, which is an asteroid. That is unusual and this is one of the only major meteor showers not originating from a comet. This asteroid has an orbit that brings it closer to the Sun than any other named asteroid. And that is how the asteroid got its name.
Phaethon is a name from mythology. Phaethon was the Ancient Greek name for the planet Jupiter, a planet whose motions and cycles were observed by the ancients and often used in poetry and myth.
In mythology, Phaethon’s father was the sun god Helios who granted his son’s wish to drive the sun chariot for a day. Phaethon was unable to control the horses and to prevent the chariot from hitting and destroying Earth, Zeus knocked it out of the sky with a thunderbolt. Phaethon fell to earth and was killed.
Of course, meteors are not falling stars, and they are not coming from the chariot of the Sun, but it does make for a good story.