The Geminid meteor shower is one of the most consistently impressive celestial light shows of the year. And this year's display hits its peak this weekend. Here's what you need to know to spot as many meteors as possible.
Pictured above: A massive Geminid fireball from 2009's shower, one of the brightest ever recorded. The Geminids are notorious for lasting several days and being rich in uncommonly bright "earthgrazer" meteors via NASA
Avoid Light Like the Plague
We're talking all kinds of light. City lights, street lights, house lights, flashlights, any lights. This year, a waning moon will already be giving off some light during peak viewing hours, so don't make things any worse by blasting your retinas with the light from your phone. It is 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 adapt fully 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, you'll probably only spot that many under optimal conditions.
Know When and Where to Look
This year's shower is expected to peak the night of Saturday, December 13th (that said, there's a good chance of spotting meteors the nights of the 12th and 14th, as well). Activity tends to ramp up as the night unfolds, but this year's shower will be interrupted by a waning moon, which should rise around midnight. Fortunately, the Geminids are a bright bunch. If it were me, I would head out around 8:00 pm local time to await the rise of the constellation Gemini, which should rise above the eastern horizon around 9pm.
As for where to look, that depends on who you ask. Some people will tell you to look towards the radiant, the point in the sky from which the shooting stars will appear to emanate. For the Geminids, the radiant is near the constellation Gemini:
Credit: Stellarium via Universe Today
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.
Clouds ruining your skygazing? Watch it live online right here, with Slooh, starting at 5:00 PT on December 13:
NASA Marshal Spaceflight Center will have a livestream, too, along with a live webchat:
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.