Tonight’s your best chance to spot hundreds of meteors: Here’s how

Geminid meteor shower will peak on December 14

Just like any other year, the final major meteor shower – the best, according to Nasa – will peak tonight, December 14, 2012, as the night skies put up a great show for all of us to watch.

“The Geminid meteor shower is usually one of the best of the year,” says Nasa. “Though the shower’s peak is brief, on the night of December 13 and 14, up to 120 meteors per hour are predicted, if you live in an area with dark skies,” says the agency.

Dubai Astronomy Group (DAG) has organised an event at the Al Zubair Camp, just a few kilometres north of Sharjah. Enthusiasts who wish to enjoy the event with like-minded stargazers are welcome to attend the night of "meteor madness". Bring a warm sweater, recommends DAG, and see for yourself the Great Orion nebula and a host of other astronomical objects in the December's night sky.

The DAG will charge you a nominal fee of Dh10 for adults and Dh5 for kids, purely as a contribution towards the upkeep of their observatory and equipment.

In mid-December of each year, Earth runs into the stream of debris from Phaethon, which causes the Geminid meteor shower – a beautiful display of meteors for us to enjoy.

Unlike the Perseids or Leonids, the Geminids are a relatively young meteor shower, with the first reports occuring in the 1830s citing rates of about 20 per hour. Over the decades the rates have increased – it is now the best annual meteor shower – and we regularly see between 80 and 120 per hour at its peak on a clear evening.

It hasn’t been particularly cloudy of late in Dubai, and if the skies remain clear, we can expect to see as many as 40 per hour.

And, if we’re lucky, we might see some meteors before and after the peak days, too.

Experts reckon that anytime between December 12 and 16 is a valid window for Geminid-watching, but the night of December 13-14 is the anticipated peak of the showers.

Unlike many meteor showers, you can start watching the Geminids by 9 or 10pm local time. The peak might be around 2am local time on these nights, because that’s when the shower’s radiant point is highest in the sky as seen around the world.

With no moon to ruin the show, 2012 presents a most favorable year for watching the grand finale of the meteor showers. Best viewing of the Geminids will probably be from about 1am to 3am on December 14.

It is a beloved shower, because, as a general rule, it’s either the August Perseids or the December Geminids that provide the most prolific display of the year. Best of all, the new moon guarantees a dark sky on the peak night of the Geminid shower (mid-evening December 13 until dawn December 14). But the nights on either side of the peak date should be good as well.

Geminids are pieces of debris from an object called 3200 Phaethon, which is something of a mystery. Near closest approach to the Sun (perihelion), Phaethon exhibits increases in brightness similar to that of a comet; however, its orbit is characteristic of an asteroid.

Extinct comet or asteroid? The debate still rages among astronomers. As for us, a good show and some hot chocolate will do.

Tips for watching meteor showers in Dubai – and the rest of the UAE

Mandatory: Bring along a dark sky. Just kidding. But remember that no dark sky, no good show. So, pray for a dark sky.
Get the time (and date) right: Meteor showers occur over a range of dates, because they stem from Earth’s own movement through space. As we orbit the sun, we cross “meteor streams.” These streams of icy particles in space come from comets moving in orbit around the sun. Comets are fragile icy bodies that litter their orbits with debris. When this cometary debris enters our atmosphere, it vaporises due to friction with the air. If moonlight or city lights don’t obscure the view, we on Earth see the falling, vaporising particles as meteors.
Where to watch it from: That’s the fun of watching a meteor shower – it can be dome from anywhere you get an unobstructed view of the night sky. You can comfortably watch meteors from many places, assuming you have a dark sky: your back yard or deck, the hood of your car, the side of a road… you name it.
What to bring along: That depends on how long do you intend to be outdoors, and how comfortable do you wish to be. If you want to bring along equipment to make yourself more comfortable, consider a blanket or reclining lawn chair, a thermos with a hot drink, binoculars for gazing along the pathway of the summer Milky Way. Be sure to dress warmly enough. Even in the UAE, nights around this time can be chilly, especially in the hours before dawn when the most meteors should be flying.

(Home page image courtesy Shutterstock)

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