December’s full cold moon will compete with the bright Geminid meteor shower this week as the celestial events vie for our attention.
This month’s full moon, also known as the “long nights moon”, becomes full tonight at 7:05 p.m. and coincides with its perigee – the closest it comes to Earth in its monthly orbit.
At the same time, the reliable Geminid meteor shower will peak early Wednesday morning, although will be ongoing through the week.
The Geminid shower is considered one of the more robust celestial shows of the year as the Earth crosses the path of asteroid 3200 Phaethon.
First discovered in 1983, 3200 Phaethon was long thought to be an asteroid but is now classified as an extinct comet. Before the discovery, no one knew the source of the Geminid shower, which has been recognized as an annual event since 1862.
A comet is a roiling cauldron of gas, dust, ice and rock that has a glowing head and tail, while an asteroid is inactive, basically a large chunk of rock in space that doesn’t shed debris. That’s why 3200 Phaethon is a bit of a mystery and has been dubbed a “rock comet” by some scientists.
Early morning hours are usually best to view the Geminids, which is named after the constellation Gemini. EarthSky.org says anytime between today and early Thursday morning will be good for viewing the Geminids.
“These meteors are known for being bright, so some Geminid meteors may well overcome this year’s moonlit glare,” writes Bruce McClure in EarthSky.
No special equipment is needed to view the Geminids, and McClure notes to make sure to look for the planet Jupiter, which will rise in the east during this week’s early morning hours.
“Be sure to give yourself at least an hour of observing time,” McClure says. “It takes about 20 minutes for your eyes to adapt to the dark.”
Unfortunately in South Florida, the forecast calls for partly cloudy skies tonight, which won’t make for great viewing. But the sky begins to clear some on Wednesday when you should still be able to see meteors falling.
“The Geminid meteor shower is the favorite of most meteor observers as it usually provides the strongest display of the year,” wrote Robert Lunsford in a blog for the American Meteor Society. “The Geminids are one of the few annual meteor showers that are active all night long.”