There are plenty of meteor showers in the late fall – we’ve seen the Orionids in October, and the Taurids and Leonids in November. If you got outside at the right time, and the weather was nice, maybe you saw a few “shooting stars.”
Tonight, however, may be different.
That’s because we may be treated to not one, but two meteor showers at the same time, according to NASA.
In addition to the peak of the Geminid shower, there may be a brand new meteor shower debuting after sunset tonight, Dec. 13.
The new, as-yet-to-be-named shower is courtesy of Comet Wirtanen, discovered in 1948, according to Bill Cooke, from NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office.
As for the source of the Geminids, it’s somewhat of a mystery, Cooke said on NASA’s website.
“The Geminids are my favorite,” he said, “Because they defy explanation.”
Most meteor showers are the result of debris burning up in Earth’s atmosphere; debris from comets: rocky, icy bodies that orbit the sun in pronounced elliptical orbits.
But the debris that gives us the Geminids meteor shower – called 3200 Phaethon – isn’t a comet.
It could be a rock that broke of from a larger asteroid, Cooke said, and the meteor shower could be debris from the asteroid’s breakup.
Or it could be a “rock comet,” a new kind of asteroid being discussed, according to NASA, with a rocky tail, like a comet.
There are some problems with that hypothesis, too, Cooke said.
But, if the Geminids coincide with a new meteor shower, and the National Weather Service’s forecast for Santa Cruz – clear, moonless, skies – is correct, the meteors’ origin probably won’t be on the forefront of most people’s minds.
The best places to watch? Big, open spaces. Lie down to keep the biggest and most steady view of the sky and watch the greatest free show in town.
The best time to see both showers (if models are correct) is after sunset tonight, Dec. 13. The Geminids will peak before sunrise on Dec. 14. Remember, even though it looks like the Geminids all point back to the constellation Gemini, they'll be visible all over the sky.