The year's final major meteor shower, the Geminids, will peak around 10 p.m. tonight. People in D.C. could see 40 bright shooting stars per hour.
- The year's last major meteor shower, the Geminids, will peak starting around 10 p.m. tonight. Pictured: Star trails and a lone Geminid meteor over Georgia in 1985. (Jimmy Westlake)
Starting around 10 p.m. tonight, the constellation Gemini will erupt in a fiery outpouring of white-hot missiles that could number in the hundreds. It's the annual peak of the 2011 Geminid meteor shower, and NASA says that the astral firefight this year is likely to provide a "good show."
Plan on getting to a secluded neck of the woods far away from the mercury-and-halogen haze of the city. The time window runs from 10 p.m. to sunrise on Wednesday. The moon will be out and doing its thing spreading light all over the danged place, cutting down the number of visible meteors by about half. But the Geminids, which originate from Asteroid 3200 Phaethon rather than the standard comet, are ferocious enough to burn through the natural light pollution and into our retinas. There could be as many as 40 to 50 fireballs, or violently flaring meteors, screaming across the night sky each hour.
Despite the looming near-60 degree temperatures on Thursday, the nation technically has entered winter and the night lows will waver from the mid-20s to lower-30s. (Latest forecast.) So if you've bought a fur-lined Santa suit for the holidays, tonight would be a good time to test it out. A Thermos of adulterated coffee is also suggested.
Where to look? The Geminids can pop up anywhere in the sky, but there is one place from which you can expect them to spurt forth. That's slightly to the left of Gemini, above Cancer, as you can see in this sky map produced by NASA's Tony Phillips:
If you don't enjoy shivering, there's fun to be had in listening to the Geminids. The Air Force's Space Surveillance Radar constantly pings the atmosphere over Texas for debris, and meteors produce a distinctively thrilling echo. You can also help NASA's scientists by reporting any shooting stars you see via the space agency's meteor-counting app, which features a "piano key" interface, whatever that is. Download it here, and happy watching!