2016 was a year full of astronomical delights, like the Mercury Transit of May 9th, Saturn Opposition of June 3rd, Mars at Closest Approach on May 30th, Total Solar Eclipse of March 8th, Planetary Alignment of August and many more. A fitting end to such a supercalifragilisticexpialidocious year should be an astronomical treat enjoyable for all. December promises just such a wonder for the stargazers lying in wait.
The Geminids Meter Shower of 2016 is lined up between the second and third weeks of December. Geminids are a shower caused by the dust left in Earth orbit by the 5-Km wide ‘rock comet’ 3200 Phaethon. A rock comet is a rare object exhibiting features of both a comet and an asteroid. 3200 Phaethon is a member of the Palladian family, which means that its orbit takes it very close to the Sun at its nearest point and in the intermediate asteroid belt at its farthest. It crosses Earth’s orbit every 1.43 years and upon exposure to Sun’s heat, outgasses grainy rock particles, which it leaves in its wake. When the Earth passes through this debris field, these remnants rain down on Earth in the form of meteors.
The radiant for the Geminids lies in the constellation of Gemini (close to the star Castor), which is also where it gets its name from. But as is with all the meteor showers, the meteors can be visible in any part of the sky, even when looking directly opposite to where the constellation of Gemini lies. If retraced though, the path of each meteor will (appear to) originate from the radiant in Gemini.
The peak night for Geminids this year will be the 13th of December (or the morning of the 14th), although anywhere between the 12th and 15th promises to be eventful. The most number of meteors from the shower are expected to be seen when Gemini reaches the highest in your sky, which will be close to 2.00 am, irrespective of where you are located. Moon threatens to play spoilsport this year, but the heartening fact is that the Geminids are a slower moving family of meteors clocked at around 35-40 Km/sec. They are also relatively bright, which effectively means that inspite of the bright moonlight, quite a few of them will be visible. A rate of close to 120 per hour is predicted during peak-time.
Final words: Pick out a dark place away from the city and a friend to watch your back, literally, the sky behind your back, and prepare to be amazed by the most reliant shower of the year.