You can see a chance meteor streak through the sky all year round — they're what most people call "shooting stars" — but at certain times of year, we get a particularly rousing performance. One of the final productions from the theater in the sky each year comes in the form of the Geminids, a bright shower of meteors that gets a stargazing boost from December's crisp, clear nights.

Related Video: Time-Lapse Video of the Geminid Meteor Shower

Ignite the Light

Most meteor showers are named after the constellation they appear to come from — the Perseids appear in Perseus, for instance, and the Leonids appear in Leo. The Geminids look like they originate from Gemini. They don't, of course; they just appear at the place in the sky where Gemini happens to be.

In fact, they come from an asteroid, one called 3200 Phaethon. That's unusual since most meteor showers are due to debris flying off of the tails of comets. Asteroids rarely have much debris to leave behind, but 3200 Phaethon is crumblier than most. Scientists aren't sure why that is; some think it may have collided with something in the past, while others think it's because its yearly path takes it so close to the sun that the temperatures cause it to fracture. In any case, the rocky crumbs it leaves behind fly into Earth's atmosphere at a screaming 80,000 miles per hour (130,000 kph), heating up and vaporizing in bright streaks of light. Thanks to their unusual origin, the Geminids are considered one of the most prolific meteor showers of the year.

How to Watch It

The Geminids show up around the second week of December each year. In 2018, they'll peak around late night on December 13 and early morning of December 14.

For the best show, it's a good idea to find a spot without a lot of light pollution. That means that if you live in the city, you may want to drive a few hours away from civilization. You don't need a telescope or binoculars, just your naked eyes, plus a comfy deck chair or a blanket to stretch out on. Try to avoid looking at smartphones or other devices, since the light can wreck your night vision and it can take up to 20 minutes for your eyes to readjust to the darkness. Even better, bring a red-light flashlight. Red light wavelengths don't interfere with night vision, but still help you see where you're going while you pick out a spot. Then just kick back, look up, and take it all in!

Written by Ashley Hamer December 6, 2017

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