On December 14, 2016, the Geminids meteor shower is on schedule! This extended meteor shower is visible to night sky observers around the world for about two weeks from its annual “return” to Earth’s point of view.
Unlike other meteor showers that have been observed over many centuries, like the Leonids, for example, the Geminids are youngsters. They first appeared in the mid-1800s and have grown in both number and intensity. At its maximum, these can appear with a frequency of approximately two a minute!
So where did this sudden phenomenon come from? It took NASA’s Infrared Astronomical Satellite to locate the intriguing source – not a comet, the usual suspect for a meteor shower, but an asteroid! Usually a comet, a dust covered ice body, passes within the sun’s heating influence and loses bits and pieces that leave trails we can see periodically from Earth. The asteroid, a dust covered rocky body, seems to pass within the sun’s heating influence to superheat the rock causing thermal fracturing at the asteroid’s surface so pieces flake off into the incendiary bits we can see. Different body; similar solar heating; different mechanism for producing visible flares; similar spectacular result.
Locate the Gemini constellation’s position to watch the showers. Or, find a meteor streak and trace it back to the likely spot in the sky. Meteor showers are visible when Earth’s orbit travels through the debris path of an orbiting space body currently experiencing a solar-bake.
Scientists call this Gemini object 3200 Paethon and consider it a rocky comet. How did it begin its life as an orbiting space body? Is it a chip off a parent block? How does what we see actually occur? Each year we learn a bit more. There are still clues yet to be discovered to totally solve the Geminids mystery.
B Bondar / Real World Content Advantage