The cosmos’ annual gift to sky watchers, the Geminids Meteor shower, will peak on Dec. 13-14 this year.
During peak activity and perfect weather conditions, which are rare, the Geminids produce approximately 100-150 meteors per hour for viewing. However, this year a waning gibbous moon will make it harder to view most of the shower, resulting in only 30-40 visible meteors per hour at the peak in the Northern Hemisphere, depending on sky conditions. But the Geminids are so bright that this should still be a good show.
Bill Cooke, lead of NASA’s Meteoroid Environments Office at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, suggests sitting in the shade of a house or tree while also maintaining a view of the open sky to alleviate moonlight interference.
The meteor shower is coined the Geminids because the meteors appear to radiate from the constellation Gemini. According to Cooke, meteors close to the radiant have very short trails and are easily missed, so observers should avoid looking at that constellation. However, tracing a meteor backwards to the constellation Gemini can determine if you caught a Geminid (other weaker showers occur at the same time).
Gemini does not appear very high above the horizon in the Southern Hemisphere, resulting in viewers only seeing approximately 25% of the rates seen in the Northern Hemisphere, which is between 7-10 meteors per hour. Sky watchers from the Southern Hemisphere are encouraged to find areas with minimal light pollution and look to the northern sky to improve their viewing opportunities.
The Geminids start around 9 or 10 p.m. CST on Dec. 13, making it a great viewing opportunity for any viewers who cannot be awake during later hours of the night. The shower will peak at 6 a.m. CST on Dec. 14, but the best rates will be seen earlier around 2 a.m. local time. You can still view Geminids just before or after this date, but the last opportunity is on Dec. 17 – when a dedicated observer could possibly spot one or two on that night.
For prime viewing, find an area away from city and streetlights, bundle up for winter weather conditions, bring a blanket or sleeping bag for extra comfort, lie flat on your back with your feet facing south, and look up. Practice patience because it will take approximately 30 minutes for your eyes to fully adjust and see the meteors. Refrain from looking at your cell phone or other bright objects to keep your eyes adjusted.
The show will last for most of the night, so you have multiple opportunities to spot the brilliant streaks of light across our sky.
So where does this magnificent shower come from? Meteors are fragments and particles that burn up as they enter Earth’s atmosphere at high speed, and they usually originate from comets.
The Geminid shower originates from the debris of 3200 Phaethon an asteroid first discovered on Oct. 11, 1983, using the Infrared Astronomical Satellite. Phaethon orbits the Sun every 1.4 years, and every year Earth passes through its trail of debris, resulting in the Geminids Shower.
Phaethon is the first asteroid to be associated with a meteor shower, but astronomers debate its exact classification and origins. Phaethon lacks an icy shell (the staple characteristic of a comet), but some consider it a “dead comet” – suggesting it once had an icy shell that melted away. Other astronomers call it a “rock comet” because Phaethon passes very close to the Sun during its orbit, which theoretically results in heating and cracking that creates debris and dust. The bottom line is Phaethon’s exact origins are still a mystery, but we do know it’s the Geminids parent body.
Geminids travel 78,000 miles per hour, over 40 times faster than a speeding bullet, but it is highly unlikely that meteors will reach the ground – most Geminids burn up at altitudes between 45 to 55 miles.
In addition to sky watching opportunities, meteor videos recorded by the NASA All Sky Fireball Network are available each morning to identify Geminids in these videos – just look for events labeled “GEM.”
And, if you want to know what else is in the sky for December, check out the video below from Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s monthly “What’s Up” video series:
A bright meteor flew through the skies over northern Utah on Saturday morning, later raining down meteorites over the Great Salt Lake.
Residents of the Salt Lake City area were startled by loud booms at 8:30 a.m. MDT on Saturday, Aug. 13, 2022. Eyewitnesses saw a fireball in the sky, 16 times brighter than the full Moon.
Approximately 22,000 miles out in space, NOAA’s Geostationary Lightning Mappers (GLM) onboard the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES) 17 and 18 detected the meteor, which was first seen 50 miles over West Valley City. However, it is difficult to pinpoint its exact trajectory.
“Daytime fireballs are very tough to analyze,” said Bill Cooke, lead of NASA’s Meteoroid Environments Office at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. “There are few eyewitness sightings of the fireball and videos posted on social media are difficult to calibrate without stars in the background.”
After traveling northwest at 39,000 miles per hour, the object – a piece of an asteroid about 2 feet across – broke apart above the eastern shore of the lake. “One meteorite has been recovered from the lake shore,” said Cooke. “There are probably more, but I would expect the vast majority fell into the water.”
NASA studies meteoroid environments in space to protect astronauts and satellites in space. NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office prepares meteoroid forecasts for missions like Artemis I, the first integrated test of NASA’s deep space exploration systems: the Orion spacecraft, Space Launch System rocket, and the ground systems at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The Artemis I launch is currently targeted for Aug. 29.
For more information on NASA’s All Sky Fireball Network, visit:
Usually bringing one of the most vivid annual meteor showers visible in Earth’s night sky, commonly delivering 50-100 “shooting stars” per hour at its height, the Perseids will peak Aug. 12 and 13. There’s just one problem: the full Moon.
“Sadly, this year’s Perseids peak will see the worst possible circumstances for spotters,” said NASA astronomer Bill Cooke, who leads the Meteoroid Environment Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. “Most of us in North America would normally see 50 or 60 meteors per hour,” he said, “but this year, during the normal peak, the full Moon will reduce that to 10-20 per hour at best.”
The Moon is so much brighter than anything else in the night sky, and it will wash out all, but the very brightest Perseids as they streak through our atmosphere and burn up far overhead.
As the full Moon subsides, the Perseids will begin to wane Aug. 21-22 and cease completely by Sept. 1. They’re the debris remnants of Comet Swift-Tuttle, a lumbering “snowball” composed of ice, rock, and dust, which orbits our Sun every 133 years. The comet itself was last visible to us in 1992 and won’t pass our way again until 2125.
How far back sightings of the Perseids actually go remains a matter of some contention, Cooke said. The comet itself wasn’t identified until 1862, but the meteor shower was seen over medieval Europe. The annual event came to be known as “the Tears of St. Lawrence,” named for the last of seven Roman church deacons martyred by the emperor Valerian in August of the year 258.
So, this is probably not the best year to make a special trip in order to see the Perseids, but, if you find yourself outside between midnight and dawn on Aug. 13, don’t forget to look up anyway. Because you never know – you might just catch one of the bright Perseid meteors that defies the glare of the Moon. Also, the occasional early Perseid can streak across the sky as much as a week beforehand.
If you want to know what else is in the sky for August, check out the latest “What’s Up” video from Jet Propulsion Laboratory:
Most particles are no bigger than dust and sand. Hitting the upper atmosphere at speeds up to 45 miles per second, they flare and burn up. On any given night, the average person can see from 4 to 8 meteors per hour. Meteor showers, however, are caused by streams of comet and asteroid debris, which create many more flashes and streaks of light as Earth passes through the debris field.
“It’s a perfect opportunity for space enthusiasts to get out and experience one of nature’s most vivid light shows,” Cooke said.
Eta Aquariids (May 5-6)
First up, on the night of May 5 and early hours of May 6, around 3:00 am CDT, is the eta Aquariid shower, caused by the annual encounter with debris from Halley’s comet – remnants of the comet’s tour through the solar system once every 75 or 76 years. Its radiant – or the point in the night sky from which the meteor shower appears to originate – is the constellation Aquarius. The shower is named for the brightest star in that constellation, eta Aquarii.
Until Halley’s comet is next visible from Earth in 2061, only the eta Aquariids – and their fall counterpart, the Orionid meteor shower, which is visible each October – mark the passage of this solar system visitor.
“It will be interesting to see if the rates are low this year, or if we will get a spike in numbers before next year’s forecast outburst,” Cooke said.
The annual meteor shower has the best rates for those in the Southern Hemisphere, but even in the Northern Hemisphere, if weather conditions are right, there is a possibility of seeing up to 30 meteors per hour. The waxing crescent Moon will set before the eta Aquariid radiant gets high in the sky, leaving dark skies for what should be an excellent show. Best viewing happens after 3 AM local time, so get up early.
Tau Herculids (May 30-31)
A possible newcomer this year is the tau Herculid shower, forecast to peak on the night of May 30 and early morning of May 31.
Back in 1930, German observers Arnold Schwassmann and Arno Arthur Wachmann discovered a comet known as 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann, or “SW3, which orbited the Sun every 5.4 years. Being so faint, SW3 wasn’t seen again until the late 1970s, seeming pretty normal until 1995, when astronomers realized the comet had become about 600 times brighter and went from a faint smudge to being visible with the naked eye during its passage. Upon further investigation, astronomers realized SW3 had shattered into several pieces, littering its own orbital trail with debris. By the time it passed our way again in 2006, it was in nearly 70 pieces, and has continued to fragment further since then.
If it makes it to us this year, the debris from SW3 will strike Earth’s atmosphere very slowly, traveling at just 10 miles per second – which means much fainter meteors than those belonging to the eta Aquariids. But North American stargazers are taking particular note this year because the tau Herculid radiant will be high in the night sky at the forecast peak time. Even better, the Moon is new, so there will be no moonlight to wash out the faint meteors.
“This is going to be an all or nothing event. If the debris from SW3 was traveling more than 220 miles per hour when it separated from the comet, we might see a nice meteor shower. If the debris had slower ejection speeds, then nothing will make it to Earth and there will be no meteors from this comet,” Cooke said.
In meteorology, Earth’s winter season for the Northern Hemisphere and summer season for the Southern Hemisphere began on Dec. 1, 2021. However, the December solstice brings in the astronomical winter and summer seasons, respectively, for the two hemispheres of our planet. This will happen on Dec. 21 at 15:59 UTC, which is 9:59 a.m. CST in the United States.
Solstices come twice a year. For the Northern Hemisphere, the summer (June) solstice occurs around June 20-21, and the winter (December) solstice happens around Dec. 21-22. At the solstice, the Sun’s path appears farthest north or south, depending on which half of the planet you’re on. Seasons change on Earth because the planet is slightly tilted on its axis as it travels around the Sun.
Earth’s axis may be imagined as an imaginary pole going right through the center of our planet from “top” to “bottom.” Earth spins around this pole, making one complete turn each day. That is why we have day and night.
Although the tilt of the Earth as compared to the plane of its orbit around the Sun is more or less constant (23.5˚), at the December solstice, the Northern Hemisphere receives the most indirect sunlight, causing cooler temperatures. The Southern Hemisphere receives the most direct sunlight, causing warmer temperatures, so it is summer there. At the June solstice, this effect reverses and the Northern Hemisphere receives the most direct sunlight, causing warmer temperatures, and the Southern Hemisphere receives the most indirect sunlight, causing cooler temperatures.
The December solstice brings the shortest day and longest night of the year for locations in the northern half of the globe, like the U.S., while the southern half of the globe is experiencing its longest day and shortest night. Therefore, all locations north of the equator see daylight shorter than 12 hours and all locations south see daylight longer than 12 hours.
After the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, the days will get longer and the nights shorter until the summer solstice on June 21, 2022, when things reverse. The March equinox on March 20, 2022, will mark the beginning of the astronomical spring season and the September equinox on September 22, 2022, will mark the beginning of astronomical fall.
The ancient cultures knew that the Sun’s path across the sky, length of daylight, and location of the sunrise and sunset all shifted in a regular way throughout the year. Additionally, people built monuments, like Stonehenge in England and the Torreon in Machu Picchu, Peru, to follow the Sun’s annual progress and predict its movements.
Today, we have even more information about the universe, and we celebrate the solstice as an astronomical event caused by Earth’s tilt on its axis and its motion in orbit around the Sun.
No matter where you are on Earth’s globe – this is your time to celebrate this seasonal change!
Every December we have a chance to see one of our favorite meteor showers – the Geminids. The shower is currently active until Dec. 17 and will peak on the night of Dec. 13 into the morning of Dec. 14, making those hours the best time for viewing the meteor shower.
The Geminids are caused by debris from a celestial object known as 3200 Phaethon, whose origin is the subject of some debate. Some astronomers consider it to be an extinct comet, based on observations showing some small amount of material leaving Phaethon’s surface. Others argue that it has to be an asteroid because of its orbit and its similarity to the main-belt asteroid Pallas.
Whatever the nature of Phaethon, observations show that the Geminids are denser than meteors belonging to other showers, enabling them to get as low as 29 miles above Earth’s surface before burning up. Meteors belonging to other showers, like the Perseids, burn up much higher.
The Geminids can be seen by most of the world. Yet, it is best viewed by observers in the Northern Hemisphere. As you enter the Southern Hemisphere and move towards the South Pole, the altitude of the Geminid radiant – the celestial point in the sky where the Geminid meteors appear to originate – gets lower and lower above the horizon. Thus, observers in these locations see fewer Geminids than their northern counterparts.
Besides the weather, the phase of the Moon is a major factor in determining whether a meteor shower will have good rates during any given year. This is because the moonlight “washes out” the fainter meteors, resulting in sky watchers seeing the fewer bright ones. This year, the Moon will be almost 80% full at the peak of the Geminids, which isn’t ideal for our highly regarded meteor shower. Nevertheless, that bright Moon is expected to set around 2:00 a.m. wherever you are located, leaving a couple of hours for meteor watching until twilight.
“Rich in green-colored fireballs, the Geminids are the only shower I will brave cold December nights to see,” said Bill Cooke, lead for NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office, located at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
NASA will broadcast a live stream of the shower’s peak Dec. 13-14 via a meteor camera at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, (if our weather cooperates!), starting at 8 p.m. CST on the NASA Meteor Watch Facebook page.
Meteor videos recorded by the All Sky Fireball Network are also available each morning to identify Geminids in these videos – just look for events labeled “GEM.”
Learn more about the Geminids below:
Why are they called the Geminids?
All meteors associated with a shower have similar orbits, and they all appear to come from the same place in the sky, which is called the radiant. The Geminids appear to radiate from a point in the constellation Gemini, hence the name “Geminids.”
How fast are Geminids?
Geminids travel 78,000 mph (35 km/s). This is over 1000 times faster than a cheetah, about 250 times faster than the swiftest car in the world, and over 40 times faster than a speeding bullet!
How to observe the Geminids?
If it’s not cloudy, get away from bright lights, lie on your back, and look up. Remember to let your eyes get adjusted to the dark – you’ll see more meteors that way. Keep in mind, this adjustment can take approximately 30 minutes. Don’t look at your cell phone screen, as it will ruin your night vision!
Meteors can generally be seen all over the sky. Avoid watching the radiant because meteors close to it have very short trails and are easily missed. When you see a meteor, try to trace it backwards. If you end up in the constellation Gemini, there’s a good chance you’ve seen a Geminid.
Observing in a city with lots of light pollution will make it difficult to see Geminids. You may only see a handful during the night in that case.
When is the best time to observe Geminids?
The best night to see the shower is Dec. 13/14. Sky watchers in the Northern Hemisphere can go out in the late evening hours on Dec. 13 to see some Geminids, but with moonlight and radiant low in the sky, you may not see many meteors.
Best rates will be seen when the radiant is highest in the sky around 2:00 a.m. local time, including the Southern Hemisphere, on Dec. 14. The Moon will set around the same time. Therefore, observing from moonset until twilight on Dec. 14 should yield the most meteors.
You can still see Geminids on other nights, before or after Dec. 13-14, but the rates will be much lower. The last Geminids can be seen Dec. 17.
How many Geminids can observers expect to see Dec. 13/14?
Realistically, the predicated rate for observers in the northern hemisphere is closer to 30-40 meteors per hour. Observers in the Southern Hemisphere will see fewer Geminids than those in the northern hemisphere – perhaps 25% of rates in the Northern Hemisphere.
Although this year’s conditions are not the best for viewing the Geminid meteor shower, it will still be a good show to catch in our night skies.
And, if you want to know what else is in the sky for December, check out the video below from Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s monthly “What’s Up” video series:
As we approach month’s end, there is not one, not two, but three celestial events happening with our Moon!
The Moon will be located on Earth’s opposite side from the Sun and fully illuminated May 26, 2021, at 6:13 a.m. CDT. This Full Moon was known by early Native American tribes as the Flower Moon because this was the time of year when spring flowers appeared in abundance.
Compared to other Full Moons in 2021, the Flower Moon will have the nearest approach to Earth, making it appear as the closet and largest Full Moon of the year. This is what is commonly referred to as a “supermoon”. Yet, it’s not just bringing brightness and size. May’s supermoon is also bringing a “super power” to change its color, and the color is red!
Mars is most commonly known as the Red Planet. But have you ever witnessed our own planet’s Moon turn red? If you haven’t, you’ll get your chance with this year’s only total lunar eclipse also happening May 26! It’s been nearly two and a half years since the last one.
A total lunar eclipse occurs when the Moon passes completely through the Earth’s dark shadow, or umbra. During this type of eclipse, the Moon will gradually get darker, taking on a rusty or blood-red color. The color is so striking that lunar eclipses are sometimes called Blood Moons.
The total eclipse phase will be visible near moonset in the western United States and Canada, all of Mexico, most of Central America and Ecuador, western Peru, and southern Chile and Argentina. The eclipse can be seen in its entirety in eastern Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands, including Hawaii. Unlike a solar eclipse, you won’t need special glasses to view this lunar eclipse, just go outside and keep your head to the sky!
“Folks in Hawaii and the Aleutian Islands will get to see the entirety of this eclipse – it will be quite a show for them,” said Bill Cooke, Lead, NASA Meteoroid Environments Office.
The eclipse is set to begin May 26 at 1:46 a.m. PDT, with the Moon entering the darkest part of the Earth’s shadow at 2:45 a.m. Part of it will remain in the umbra until 5:53 a.m. To catch totality – the period when all of the Moon’s surface is blanketed by the Earth’s dark shadow – look up between 4:11 and 4:26 a.m.
We haven’t had a total lunar eclipse occur with a supermoon in almost six years, and the next total lunar eclipse won’t happen over North America until May 2022.
Earth Day – also known as the birth of the modern environmental movement – is Thursday, April 22, 2021. It began in 1970, giving a voice to an emerging public consciousness about the state of our planet. The celebration is widely recognized as the largest secular observance in the world, with more than a billion people participating annually in support of preserving the health and beauty of our planet.
In observance of Earth Day, NASA will host a virtual event April 21-24 to show how we are #ConnectedByEarth with a week of online events, stories, and resources. The event platform will feature live presentations by NASA scientists, as well as interactive chats with Earth science experts. Visitors can explore the connections between Earth’s atmosphere, water cycle, forests, fields, cities, ice caps, and climate through videos and interactive science content, a kid-friendly fun zone, a scavenger hunt, hundreds of downloadable resources, and more. Some content also will be available in Spanish.
On Earth Day at 11 a.m. EDT, NASA will host a special live conversation with Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Shawn Mendes and five people living and working in space: NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover, Dr. Shannon Walker, and Mark Vande Hei; and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Soichi Noguchi. The event will air live on NASA Television, the NASA app, and the agency’s website. Learn more about NASA’s Earth Day plans and free online registration.
After several months of a meteor drought in 2021, we also have the annual Lyrid meteor shower coming up on Earth Day. The Lyrids will peak in the predawn hours of Earth Day (April 22). If you miss the peak, the wee hours of the following morning (April 23) offer another chance to see this shower, though the number of meteors will be down about 30% from the night of the 21st/22nd.
Observers in the Northern Hemisphere will see the most Lyrids, with the best time to watch between midnight and dawn. Although you’ll see a fairly bright Moon in the evening sky, it will set before the shower peaks near dawn. Peak rates for the Lyrids are around 10-20 meteors per hour. The meteors will appear to radiate from the constellation Lyra, but they can appear anywhere in the sky, which is why it is important to lie on your back and take in as much sky as possible.
The Lyrids is among the oldest of known meteor showers, with records going back for 2,700 years or more. It is produced by dust particles left behind by Comet C/1861 G1 Thatcher, which was discovered in 1861. The shower runs annually from April 16-25.
NASA is developing a path for an exciting journey to Mars – a rich destination for scientific discovery and human exploration as we expand our presence into the solar system. This month of October brings an amazing night-sky view of the Red Planet.
Mars is currently visible, reaching its highest point in the sky around midnight. Earth’s closest neighbor is also at its brightest and will remain that way well into November.
Right now, Mars is the third brightest object in Earth’s night. The Moon and Venus are the two brightest objects, and usually Jupiter is third. But for this season, Mars is passing close enough to Earth to outshine Jupiter. This great visibility of Mars coincides with an event known as opposition, which happens every two years and two months.
Opposition occurs when the orbit of a planet, such as Mars, takes it near the Earth. Just like runners passing each other on a track, the faster, inner planets, such as Earth, can approach and overtake slower-moving outer planets like Mars. When the planets pass each other during this opposition, Mars’ proximity means it will appear larger and brighter in our sky. Because the Sun, Earth, and Mars are lined up during this passing, Mars will rise at sunset, having a high overhead at midnight. This is the closest the Red Planet will come to Earth for the next 15 years, or until September 2035.
At its furthest, Mars reaches about 250 million miles (400 million km) from Earth. During the October opposition, it will be as close as 40 million miles (60 million km) – nearly seven times closer. Although Mars will still look like a bright star to the unaided eye, it will grow dramatically in size when seen in a telescope. This year, Mars’ closest approach to Earth happens just a week before the opposition on Oct. 13, giving the Red Planet its biggest, apparent size of the 2020’s.
When it comes to observing Mars around opposition, telescopes will show more of the planet’s details, such as dark and light regions on Mars’ surface, and the prominent south polar ice cap, which will be tilted towards the Earth. Due to the turbulence of our atmosphere, these details can be hard to see, especially in smaller telescopes.
Many amateur astronomers use a color video camera attached to their telescope, running special software that selects the best frames to stack into a single image. This helps in negating the blurring caused by the air.
The most striking thing about Mars’ appearance – whether seen with the naked eye or through a telescope – is its red color. This color is caused by iron in the rocks on Mars’ surface – the same thing that causes the red color in sandstone formations in the southwestern US.
So, when you spot Mars, keep your eye on it and enjoy its fiery, red brightness!