Contributed by Dennis Goodman, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Observing the Geminids in December

Chart showing the sky surrounding the radiant of the Geminids.

The Geminid Meteor shower is one of the most active of the year, sometimes surpassed only by the Perseids in intensity.

The shower peaks on the morning of 15 December in New Zealand. The Geminids don't seem to have a sharp peak like the Leonids, and observations can be made for a week either side of the peak.

At it's height, the Geminids have a zenith hourly rate of about 80 meteors per hour. So, if for you the radiant was at the zenith, and you could observe the whole sky at once, you might expect to see 80 meteors an hour.

Alas, in New Zealand, the radiant is low. In fact it lies just a degree or two to the left of, and slightly below, Castor. So, in New Zealand we effectivly lose out on seeing 50% of the meteors before we start. But it is still a shower worth looking at. I have found from when I lived in Auckland, and if it was fine, seeing a dozen or more Geminids an hour around the peak was quite normal. And of course one cannot observe all the sky at once. Geminids are inclined to leave good trains, and some of those meteors travel long distances. One I observed appeared first near Sirius, and travelled overhead and a long way towards the southern horizon. Remember, meteors do not appear at the radiant, unless they are heading straight for you, but generally tens of degrees from it.

The best time to look for Geminids is any time after about 1 or 2 am through until dawn. Gemini will be approaching north. I would suggest you look for Geminids streaking through the sky in the region of Orion and the area of sky to the right of Orion. Make sure you have a dark sky from northwest sound to east, and at least up to the zenith. Keep glow from city lights to the south of you.

Most meteor showers are associated with cometary debris travelling in the orbit of the comets. The Geminids are a bit different. The appear to be travelling in the same orbit as Apollo asteroid 3200 Phaethon. Is this an asteroid that perhaps was once surrounded by and icy snowball of cometary matter?


Chart of Stars near the Geminid radiant, west to Orion.

Geminid Radiant

The chart shows a field of view to the north about an hour and a half before sunrise in mid December. From the mid South Island of New Zealand, the other pair of the twins, Pollux (just above Castor) will have an altitude of about 20° and be nearly due north. For observers further north, Pollux will be a little higher.

In 2011 the moon is going to hinder observation of the meteors. On the morning of December 15, the moon will be only a little past full, 84% lit and about 26° from the radiant, so is likely to reduce the number of meteors visible.
For 2012 the moon is favourable, new moon is on December 13.

Chart prepared with the aid of GUIDE 8.0.