Break out the hot chocolate and winter scarves, it’s meteor watching season! The Geminids Meteor shower officially started out with a bang when a bolide crashed through the skies of Tucson late Tuesday night, and while that event may not be related (science takes time, people!) the Geminids have started flying through the skies. Meteor showers usually occur when planet Earth passes through a debris field left over by a passing comet’s tail. But the Geminids aren’t caused by a comet; they are asteroids shooting off rocky debris like a cosmic Pez dispenser!
Peaking on the 13th and 14th this December, the Geminids typically produce around 130 Meteors per hour, painting yellow streaks among the stars as they fall. This year, however, the Moon will be 91% full, so much of the show will be washed out by our Moon’s glare.
The culprit for this shower is 3200 Phaethon (pronounced Fay-a-thon) and this rock’s a tick over three miles wide. An Apollo-type asteroid, Phaethon dips in closer to the Sun than Mercury (reaching more than a thousand degrees Fahrenheit!) and then pops back at around 2.4 Astronomical Units, or 223 million miles from the Sun, spewing out space rocks called Meteoroids along its journey.
Long, cold (and hot!) years can pass while these Meteoroids wander through space seemingly alone until one day the great blue Earth happens to cross their orbit. The space rocks, called Meteors once in Earth’s atmosphere, crash through the atmosphere at around 22 miles per second – speeds so fast the gasses that comprise the atmosphere compress so rapidly that the air around the Meteor heats up to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, often completely vaporizing the rock in our skies.
These streaks of light, sometimes called shooting stars, hit the Earth all the time! In fact, roughly 100 tons of space debris hit the Earth every single day! Depending on the composition of the rock, Meteors can streak in brilliant yellows, blues, greens, or reds – festive and just in time for the holiday season, or as we call it in the Dorrance Planetarium: Killer Space Rock season!