Looking Northeast at about 10 PM. (Photo by Author).
This year, believe the hype; this month’s Geminid meteor shower is a sure bet. This shower is one of the few dependable ‘old faithful’ meteor showers of the year. Peaking on the night of December 13th-14th, this year’s apparition sees a well placed northern radiant rising high in the northeast as the first quarter Moon sets about midnite local. The Geminid stream radiates from very near the bright star Castor in the zodiac constellation Gemini the Twins and typically produces up to 100 to 120 meteors per hour. If you are placed in mid-northern latitudes, you may see some activity shortly after sunset, but the real meteoritic action will begin after midnite. Think of a car driving at night in a snowstorm, not a stretch in the depths of the northern hemisphere winter. Looking forward into your high beams you get the cool vintage “Star Trek” effect, as you and your vehicle plow headlong into the stream of snowflakes. Think of the flakes as meteors and the car as the Earth; we face headlong into the meteor stream after midnight, and hence see more flashing meteor trains. The Geminids present several swift movers and fireballs, and the darker skies you have access to, the more you’ll see. Be sure to dress warm (it is winter out there!) and make a point to count and record your observations. Meteor shower observing is one of the few remaining scientific endeavors that remains low tech. Also, don’t forget to participate in the #meteorwatch via Twitter! This shower has a broad peak, and will be active the week of December 12th until the 18th, when the solstice-centered Ursids become active. In fact, there are some indications that the Geminids have been increasing in activity over the past decade, and certainly there’s a lot of material out there. The predicted peak centers on 5:00 AM UTC, just past midnite Tuesday morning from the US East Coast. And if that weren’t enough, it’s one of the last meteor showers with the Moon placed below the horizon until 2012; only the Quadrantids and Giacobinids have the same favorable geometry in 2011. Good luck, and be sure not to miss this unique meteor shower!
The astro-term for this week is the Yarkovsky Effect. The parent body that produces the Geminids, 3200 Phaethon, harbors somewhat of a mystery. Discovered in 1983, this space rock has been identified as the source of the Geminid meteor stream.NASA researchers estimate a massive amount of material exists, more than 100 times that of the average meteor stream. Unlike most streams that emanate from comets, however, 3200 Phaethon is an asteroid. Or is it an inactive comet? The mystery deepens, as the color of this strange rock is very similar to another asteroid, Pallas. 3200 Phaeton’s path sees it passing within Mercury’s orbit every 1.4 years, which brings it well within the realm of the Yarkovsky effect. This is the tiny bit of momentum imparted on a rotating body as it re-radiates photons absorbed from the Sun. On large bodies the effect may be negligible, but on tiny asteroids it can produce major changes in orbit over time. In fact, employing the Yarkovsky Effect by changing the reflectivity of an Earth-crossing asteroid is one way of possibly deflecting a lethal space rock. Is 3200 Phaethon a dormant comet or the remnant of an asteroid belt break up? This is one worldlet that definitely begs future exploration.