Stargazers will be delighted to hear that December will have some fantastic meteor showers in the sky. Astronomers predict that this year’s Geminids will be particularly numerous, with their parent body, asteroid 3200 Phaethon, also passing close to our planet around the same period.
Phaethon is a rocky asteroid, or maybe the leftover of a cometary nucleus, that travels around the inner part of the Solar System in an extremely elliptical orbit. On December 10, the asteroid will perform one of its closest approaches for the next 65 years, flying about 10 million kilometers (6 million miles) from Earth. It can be seen with a good amateur telescope.
It is named after the son of the god Helios in Greek mythology, who stole his father’s chariot that carried the Sun itself. In the myth, he loses control of the chariot and begins to plunge towards the Earth, burning Africa and creating the Sahara, until he is killed by Zeus. Some have already made “apocalyptic” connections between the name and the upcoming close encounter.
Although the object is over 5 kilometers (3.2 miles), there is no danger for us. Ten million kilometers is a very safe distance. Actually, it’s Phaethon that is in more danger than us. Due to its eccentric orbits, it gets really close to the Sun, which causes fractures along its body. In fact, the asteroid has been seen releasing dust into space. The trail of debris it leaves behind across Earth’s orbit is what we came to call Geminids.
Again, Phaethon is a bit too far away to influence the meteor shower much, but it doesn’t matter because the Geminids have been reliable both in terms of numbers and spectacle value. The number of meteors has actually increased in recent years and this year won’t disappoint. In the early hours of the morning of December 14, astronomers expect over 120 meteors every 60 minutes.
The showers will be visible in both hemispheres, with the Northern Hemisphere having the chance to see them higher in the sky. Below the equator, they will appear after local midnight. They move at a leisurely speed of 35 kilometers (22 miles) per second, which makes them easy to spot as they cross the sky.