Prepare yourselves. Tomorrow night's Geminid meteor shower is shaping up to be one of the most impressive celestial light shows of 2012. Not only are the Geminids among the most reliable and prolific showers of all (NASA calls them "the 900-lb gorilla of meteor showers"), this year's display also happens to coincide with a new Moon. A new Moon mean less light pollution; less light pollution means more visible meteors (upwards of 120 per hour!); and more visible meteors means even more awe and wonderment to go around for those equipped to brave the chill of midnight in December.
So allow us to reiterate: prepare yourselves, people. Here's everything you need to know to spot as many shooting stars as possible.
Pictured above: A massive Geminid fireball from 2009's shower, one of the brightest ever recorded (the Geminids are notorious for being uncommonly bright meteors) via NASA
Avoid light like the plague
We're talking all kinds of light. City lights, street lights, house lights, flashlights, any lights. The Moon might not be an issue tomorrow, but there's still plenty of other ways to wash out the sky or effectively blind yourself. Seriously — don't blow it by checking your indiglo watch out of habit, and DON'T LOOK AT YOUR PHONE — it's a well-known fact that backlit cellphone screens were put on this Earth to ruin meteor showers.
If you're in the country, go find a big open field. If you're in the city, get out if you can. If you can't get out, try to find a high point. (These measures can make a HUGE difference. The pictures featured here compare the night sky as seen from two points in Utah located just 75 miles apart. The difference? The bottom photo was taken in a major metropolitan area, the top photo a rural town. See more info here.) The Clear Sky Chart website has a great list of optimal viewing locations organized by state, so go check it out.
Once you're all settled in, give yourself at least 20 minutes for your eyes to fully adapt to the dark. How do you know if your eyes have adapted? A good rule of thumb says if you can see all seven of the Little Dipper's main stars you'll see plenty of meteors. If you can't spot all 7 it's not a big deal, that's just under optimal conditions.
Know when and where to look
According to NASA, the best time to direct your gaze skyward will be between local midnight and sunrise on Friday, December 14th. In other words: stay up late, or wake up very, very early. Still, that's a pretty big time window any way you slice it, so we highly recommend using NASA's Fluxtimator applet to help you determine the best time to watch for meteors.
The Fluxtimator even takes your viewing location (i.e. whether you're observing from the city or the countryside) and the brightness of the moon into account. You'll want to set the dropdown menu associated with Showers to Geminids (number four on the list), and change the date on the applet to Dec 13—14, 2012. In both New York and San Francisco, for example, the peak viewing time appears to be a little after 4:00 A.M. local time tomorrow morning.
As for where to look, that depends on who you ask. Some people will tell you to look towards the radiant, where the shooting stars will appear to emanate from (for the Geminids, this is near the constellation Gemini):
It's important to bear in mind, however, that meteors' trails tend to be shorter the closer they are to the radiant. Your best bet is to probably just look straight up, or to face away from the moon, keeping in mind that meteors can appear anywhere in the sky.
If you'd like to join local experts, try looking for your neighborhood astronomy club, and find out whether they'll be setting up a telescope you can peek through with friends.
Bring the right stuff
Bring a reclining lawn chair, a blanket and some pillows. It's December, and you probably won't be moving around a whole lot, which means you need to dress warm: a beanie, gloves, thermals and a warm coat should do the trick — whatever you need to get comfortable and still keep your eyes on the sky.
Bringing hot chocolate and/or coffee is strongly encouraged. Don't try to stand. Standing and looking up may seem like a decent enough idea, but eventually your neck will get tired, and the second you take your eyes off the sky is invariably when the brightest meteors of the night will go blazing by — it's like a code that all meteors live by. If you absolutely HAVE to look away, make sure it's for something awesome like taking a sip of hot chocolate.
You shouldn't really need a telescope or binoculars, because you'll want to keep your eyes on as much of the night sky as possible. Bring something to snack on, but nothing you have to look at to eat. And finally, bring some good company, so you have somebody to "ooh" and "ahh" with while stargazing on this beautiful winter night.
Image of radiant via StarDate
This explainer is adapted from an earlier guide, originally published in December, 2011