Geminid shower in California

Geminid meteor pierces the night sky over California’s Mojave Desert Credit: Wally Pacholka, TWAN

Like a silver spear cast from the heavens, the bright streak of a Geminid meteor pierces the night sky over California’s Mojave Desert during the annual meteor shower’s 2009 peak.

Geminids are slower than other shooting stars and are known to make beautiful long arcs across the sky. This could be because they’re born of debris from a dormant comet and so are made mostly of hard, sun-baked rock that takes longer to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere, experts suggest.

Geminid Meteor Shower: Rising Star

The Geminids have been historically overlooked, simply because of their timing so close to the busy holiday season and during frigid winter nights, astronomers say.

But that’s beginning to change, thanks to the Geminids’ rising intensity over the past few decades.

In fact, for many astronomers, the December meteors have now dethroned the more popular August Perseid meteor shower as the shooting star event of the year.

“It may come as a surprise to many, but the Geminids are currently richer and are brighter on average,” said Anthony Cook, astronomy observer at Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, California.

Why the sudden illumination?

Earth is plowing deeper every year into an ancient stream of rocky debris left behind by a mysterious 3.1-mile-wide (5-kilometer-wide) object that orbits the inner solar system, he said.

When Earth’s atmosphere crosses paths with that debris cloud, the rocks are superheated and burn out—and new Geminids are born.

Geminids’ Mystery Parent

The Geminid meteors all appear to be chips off a mysterious rocky object called 3200 Phaethon.

Other meteor showers come from material shed by melting comets—which are massive chunks of dirty ice and rock—as they pass close to the sun. (See asteroid and comet pictures.)

But no one knows for sure whether the Geminids’ parent object, first identified in 1983, is an asteroid or the core of an ancient comet that simply sputtered out.

Recent observations of Phaethon, though, suggest it’s a nearly dormant comet, and the Geminids’ parent is now officially classified as such by NASA.

The research revealed that Phaethon is the rocky skeleton of a comet that lost its ice after too many close encounters with the sun, according to NASA.

The shooting stars’ rocky, hard exterior—as well as the fact that they, unprotected by ice, get baked by the sun—may help explain why Geminids are slower and last longer in the sky than other shooting stars, said Peter Brown, a meteor expert at the University of Western Ontario in Canada.

“They have the ability to penetrate deeper into Earth’s atmosphere,” Brown said, “and burn up at much lower altitudes than meteors associated with the Perseids and Leonids.”

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