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Geminid meteor shower to peak on Tuesday

December 12, 2011 | 12:57 pm


December is known for gift-giving, and the heavens will do their part this week with the Geminid meteor shower.

The usually fiery Geminid shower, expected to peak Tuesday night, is an annual event rivaling the summer’s Perseid meteor shower. If it's a clear night with sharp contrast between light and dark, viewers can expect to see dozens and perhaps as many as 120 meteors stream across the sky in an hour. The Geminid shower is considered one of the strongest such events in the astronomical year.

But there is an unbearable being of lightness when it comes to meteors. And, this year, a bright moon could disappoint meteor-lovers by obscuring the flaming debris.

In a potential consolation prize, NASA is offering a live chat with meteor experts that evening, complete with images.

The Geminids draw their name from the constellation Gemini because the meteors seem to be coming directly out of those stars. But there's a bit of a mystery attached to the phenomenon, NASA says.

Most meteors are pieces of comets, essentially ice balls with dust, rocks and other types of space debris.

Comets, which sport fiery tails, sweep across the sky and appear to be shooting stars, just like meteors. They usually form in two areas of the solar system: in the Kuiper belt, beyond the orbit of Neptune, and -- even further away from the sun -- in the Oort cloud, sort of a parking lot for icy bodies in the outer solar system.

But the Geminds are believed to be pieces of a specific asteroid, called 3200 Phaethon, which sheds bits of dusty debris. Asteroids, or planetoids of small size, orbit the sun and don’t have tails as do comets. Further, Phaethon orbits closer to the sun than any other known asteroid, coming well inside Mercury's orbit.


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Photo: The enjoyment of a meteor shower depends heavily upon the amount of light in the sky. Shown here is the Leonids meteor shower in 2001 as seen from Tucson, Ariz. Credit: James S. Wood / Arizona Daily Star / Associated Press