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Meteor shower tonight - watch for fireballs

1:16 PM, Dec 14, 2011   |    comments
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By Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY

Those who are up late Wednesday night into early Thursday morning will be able to catch the second night of the Geminid meteor shower. The annual event will be visible for the next day or so, waning slightly each night.

Meteor showers wax and wane annually and this year the Geminids are giving the best show. "This shower is showing lots of fireballs, some as bright as Venus in the night sky," says Angel Montoya, a museum guide at Los Angeles' Griffith Observatory.

The best views will come in the darkest hours of the night, between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. across the country. Though for much of that time the moon will be visible, washing out the brightest meteors, says Montoya. But if the night sky is clear there still will be lots to see.

Watching meteor showers doesn't require anything more than a warm coat and a dark sky. "All you have to do is look up, you don't have to focus on any particular area of the sky," she says. "Just lie down and look up."

The Geminid shower gets it name from the constellation Gemini, the Twins. Seen from Earth, the meteors appear to be falling from the star Castro, which is one of the 'heads' of the constellation Gemini. However the meteors don't actually have anything to do with Gemini. They are the trailing debris of an asteroid named Phaethon. The meteors appear annually when the Earth passes through Phaethon's trail of dust as it orbits the sun.

The Geminid shower is notable because it was the first one humans realized was linked to an asteroid and not a comet, notes Rebecca Johnson of StarDate magazine, published by the University of Texas at Austin McDonald Observatory. Asteroids are made up of rock and metal, while comets are balls of rock and ice. As comets near the sun, they warm and shed ice and dust which stream behind them, creating a trail that is illuminated by the sun.

 

 

USA TODAY

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