December is the darkest month of the year, with 31 days of overeating and overshopping. No wonder folks find it depressing. But for the pre-Industrial Revolution crowd, winter was a welcome respite. Shorter days meant less work. Fires and storytelling filled the nights. In the age of ESPN and MGM, we work long hours in spite of short days and are more likely to derive our entertainment from acronyms than from nature. The winter night—held at bay with space heaters and TiVo—holds no mystery that cannot be tamed by a five-year-old with a flashlight. But in the immortal words of John Lennon, what do you see when you turn out the light?
Turns out the December night sky is quietly orchestrating a fourth of July spectacular that almost no one watches. The Geminid meteor shower, which occurs annually on the nights of December 13 and 14, is “the best meteor shower of the year,” says Dr. Edward Murphy, associate professor of astronomy at the University of Virginia. I typically associate meteors with Armageddon events and shooting stars as celestial fireflies, but they’re actually one and the same, Dr. Murphy tells me. A “shooting star” is just a misnomer.
The vast majority of meteors are tiny particles, no bigger than a grain of sand. I can barely see a speck of sand on my big toe, let alone miles away. So why can we see meteors? Well, these particular grains of sand are traveling around 36 miles per second. According to Dr. Murphy, as a meteor hits the Earth’s atmosphere, “it both compresses the air around it and creates friction in the atmosphere, causing it to glow, leaving that beautiful streak you see in the sky.”
An average Geminid meteor shower produces 60 meteors per hour. The best time to see the Geminids is between 2am and dawn, because this year the meteors are competing with another showstopper—the full moon.
2009 Meteor Showers
- January 3—Quadrantids:100 per hour.
- April 21—Lyrids:15 meteors per hour. The Lyrids are the earliest recorded meteor shower, with Chinese observations dating to 687 B.C.
- May 6—Eta Aquarids:20 meteors per hour. The Eta Aquarids are caused by Halley’s Comet.
- July 28—Southern Delta Aquarids:20 meteors per hour. This shower is best seen in the Southern Hemisphere.
- August 1-24—Perseids:Its bright streaks and mid-summer peak makes this meteor shower the most commonly observed.
- Oct 8—Draconids:Researchers believe that in 2018, the Draconids will produce a meteor storm of 1,000 meteors an hour or more.
- October 21—Orionids:25 meteors per hour. Like the Eta Aquarids, the Orionids emerge from the debris of Halley’s Comet.
- November 1-24—Southern Taurids:An hourly rate of less than 15 meteors.
- November 17—Leonids:These meteors travel at 45 miles per second; about half of these meteors leave trains that can persist for several minutes.