The peak viewing from the Geminid meteor show is expected between 1 and 3 a.m. Dec. 14. Photo by the American Meteor Society.

Spectacular astronomical show set to sparkle

While Christmas lights are sparkling in many Comox Valley neighbourhoods, the skies above are promising to shine as the Geminid meteor show is expected to peak in the evening and overnight hours of Dec.13 and 14.

A couple of warm blankets, a pillow and perhaps a hot chocolate is all that is needed to watch what promises to be a spectacular show in the winter sky this week, notes North Island College physics instructor Jennifer Fallis Starhunter.

“The neat thing about this one is that with most meteor showers, the earth passes through the dust bits when a comet passes – they come through the atmosphere and burn up,” she explained.

“This is actually not a comet tail, but an asteroid orbiting the sun. It’s got a bit of a wonky orbit and leaves stuff behind that is different then comet dust – it’s slightly brighter material.”

The asteroid takes about 1.4 years to orbit around the sun, and the event is considered to be one of the most prolific meteor showers of the year.

Starhunter explains the meteor shower owes its name to the constellation Gemini from which the meteors radiate.

She adds the chances of seeing the shower are quite good on the mid-to-north Island, as the constellation rises earlier than in the south.

“It rises around 5:30 p.m., and we can see the rate of meteors increase as the constellation gets higher in the sky. At 10:30 p.m., it will be due east, halfway up around 45 degrees.”

She adds at its peak (between 1 and 3 a.m.), there should be around 120 meteors an hour that are visible, or about two meteors a minute in complete darkness. In the fringes of a city or where there is light pollution, Starhunter says to cut that number in half.

“What’s really good this year as compared to last year, is that we don’t have a full moon. This year, we have a waning crescent moon – it’s smaller and it doesn’t rise until 5 a.m.”

To get the maximum viewing experience, she suggests waiting at least 20 minutes for eyes to adapt to complete darkness, and to use either a red-coloured flashlight or place a red balloon over a flashlight for any additional light.

“The size of (the meteors) are only millimeters in size; it’s amazing to think that we can see something so small.”

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