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Geminid meteor shower peaks tonight; Comet Wirtanen may add sparks

December 13, 2012|By Karen Kaplan
  • This illustration depicts how meteors will streak across the sky Thursday night and Friday morning as part of the annual Geminid meteor shower.
This illustration depicts how meteors will streak across the sky Thursday… (StarDate )

Earthlings will have a good chance of witnessing shooting stars between sunset Thursday and sunrise Friday, courtesy of the Geminid meteor shower.

Dozens of bright objects will streak across the sky each hour between dusk and dawn as the annual Geminid show reaches its peak, according to the editors of StarDate magazine at the McDonald Observatory at the University of Texas in Austin. This year’s display will not be impeded by light from the moon, since it will set shortly after the sun does. (Southern Californians may be out of luck though, as weather forecasters are predicting a roughly 40% to 50% chance of cloud cover overnight.)

Despite their bright, twinkly appearance, the objects that will be on display are not actually stars – they’re remnants of the asteroid Phaethon that burn up when they hit the Earth’s atmosphere. Our planet orbits through Phaethon’s debris field at this time every year. Most meteor showers are the result of Earth's passing through the remnants of a comet, but the Geminid meteor shower was the first to be traced to an asteroid, according to StarDate.

The meteor shower gets its name from the constellation Gemini, since the objects seem to fall near one of its primary stars, Castor. You can get some help locating the constellation, which is northeast of Orion, from

As a bonus, the Geminid meteor shower may get a boost from dust left behind by Comet Wirtanen, according to NASA. Bill Cooke of the space agency’s Meteoroid Environment Office predicted that the dust could create up to 30 additional meteors per hour.

According to this explainer from NASA, Comet Wirtanen has not crossed paths with Earth since it was discovered in 1948. But Russian forecaster Mikhail Maslov has run computer models that indicate our planet could cross the comet’s debris stream as many as four times between now and Friday.

If Comet Wirtanen does produce meteors, sky watchers will be able to distinguish them from Geminid meteors because the meteors from the comet will appear to emanate from the constellation Pisces, according to Earthsky. The Clark Foundation offers this advice for finding Pisces in the sky.

The farther you can get from city lights, the better your view, of course. For more advice on watching the Geminid meteor shower, check out these 10 tips from EarthSky.

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