Major meteor shower returns to December skies

By: Kevin Bunch | Roseville - Eastpointe Eastsider | Published December 9, 2015


METRO DETROIT — If the weather cooperates, the Geminid meteor shower should provide a stellar show this month.

Named for the constellation Gemini — where the meteor shower appears to originate in the night sky — the Geminids start to appear in mid-December and peak the night of Dec. 13-14 after midnight. The shower occurs when the Earth crosses the orbit of a rocky comet that is shedding debris while traveling around the sun; the debris then burns up in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Warren Astronomical Society Outreach Officer Diane Hall called the Geminids a “really good shower” that sees 50-100 meteors streak by an hour at its peak. The meteors should be visible anytime between sunset and sunrise, but they become most intense around midnight, she said.

“They’ll be coming from the direction of Gemini, with its two bright stars, Castor and Pollux,” Hall said. “You’ll have the meteors coming from that direction, though they may be appearing very far from it.

“Basically, my best advice is to bundle up, get a lawn chair or blanket, lay down and view as much of the sky as possible,” she added.

The Warren Astronomical Society does not have any formal plans in place, though if the weather is good Dec. 13, Hall said some members might go to the observatory in Wolcott Mill Metropark to see the meteor shower.

Wayne State University astrophysicist David Cinabro said that while light pollution from Detroit can make it difficult to see a meteor shower in general, sky watchers north of the city should be able to catch the comet debris lighting up across the sky as it burns up in the atmosphere.

“You definitely want to get away from the lights of the city,” Cinabro said. “Around here, that typically means heading north of the city into northern Oakland (and) Macomb counties. And of course, if you can get further north, that’s even better — to places where the sky is real nice and dark.”

Hall said a place like the astronomical society’s observatory in Ray Township typically is good for viewing meteor showers, though if someone is able to get somewhere like a dark field away from streetlights, that can help.

Additionally, people along the shores of Lake St. Clair will have a good spot to view the showers, Hall said, as the lake can provide a buffer from light pollution to the east. Even in a city like Grosse Pointe Woods, she said, viewing will be much improved than a few miles inland.

This year the moon will be setting early in the evening, meaning skies should be darker than usual, Cinabro said, which should make the shower a bit easier to spot if the weather cooperates. He stressed that can be a big “if” at this time of year.

“The weather is usually uncooperative, and any sort of headaches with the weather make it almost impossible, because you need it to be clear, and around here in the winter it gets cold those clear nights,” Cinabro said. “So the Geminids aren’t, I would say, metro Detroit’s favorite meteor shower.”

Hall argued that the Geminids are overlooked frequently despite being impressive compared to other showers that occur in the summer because of the much colder winter nights.

“It’s a little bit difficult to get a lot of excitement for the Geminids, because it’s December and it’s usually cold,” Hall said. “In the Northern Hemisphere, we talk about Perseids — they come out in August, and it’s fun to stay up then. In December, it’s often cloudy, but if it’s a clear night, it’s worth bundling up for.”

Cinabro said the Geminids appear to be intensifying over the last few years, and no one quite knows why.

For those uninterested in the meteor shower — or if the weather fails to cooperate — Cinabro said there is still a morning treat for people who wake up early. Shortly before sunrise, the planets Jupiter, Venus and Mars will form a line in the eastern sky, a convergence that will begin to break up in January.

He added that the winter solstice is set for Dec. 22, which is the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere due to the tilt of the Earth’s axis.

Meanwhile, Hall said, a comet called Catalina is in the night sky, and astronomers are waiting to see if the object will brighten enough to see with the naked eye; as it stands, it is easily visible with binoculars or a small telescope in the eastern pre-dawn sky near the planets and the moon. Through binoculars, it should appear as a fuzzy blob.

Hall said Catalina is moving northward toward the constellation Draco, moving higher in the night sky until the end of January. It should move from day to day, and she suggested checking out astronomy apps on a smartphone or tablet device for specifics on where the comet is located.

Finally, she said the night sky in winter is generally full of “beautiful objects,” like the Orion nebula and star clusters, for anyone willing to dress warmly and brave the cold.