Skywatchers around the world are in for a treat tonight, as the annual Geminid meteor shower is poised to put on a spectacular show.
The Geminids will peak overnight tonight (Dec. 13) with the moon at its new phase. The skies will thus be free of the moon's glare, allowing viewers in rural areas to see perhaps 100 or more meteors per hour, experts say.
A new and as-yet unnamed meteor shower may also make an appearance tonight, ramping up the celestial display even further.
"Meteors from the new shower (if any) will be visible in the early evening, with the Geminids making their appearance later on and lasting until dawn," Bill Cooke, head of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office, said in a statement. [Photos: Geminid Meteor Shower of December 2011]
The Geminids — so named because they appear to emanate from the constellation Gemini (The Twins) — result when Earth plows through debris shed by the huge, enigmatic asteroid 3200 Phaethon. This is unusual for annual meteor showers, which are typically caused by comet particles.
The potential new shower's source is a comet called Wirtanen, Cooke said. Earth hasn't run into Wirtanen's debris stream before, but computer models suggest this year could be different.
If the new shower does indeed materialize, it could produce up to 30 meteors per hour tonight by itself, Cooke said. These shooting stars will seem to be coming from the constellation Picses (The Fish), so the shower may end up being called the Piscids.
A few scattered Geminids can be spotted shortly after sunset tonight. The show will really start picking up around 10 p.m. local time, experts say, and it should peak at 2 a.m. or so. You won't need binoculars or a telescope to see the shooting stars; just crane your neck up, preferably in a spot away from bright city lights.
You can also watch the meteor action online tonight if you so choose. Cooke and several NASA colleagues will host a live web chat overnight from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. EST (0400 to 0800 GMT), complete with live video of streaking meteors captured by a special camera at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. It will all happen here: http://www.nasa.gov/connect/chat/geminids2012.html
Skywatchers who miss tonight's peak will have a few other chances to catch the Geminids this year. The shower should linger until Dec. 16 or so before petering out completely.
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