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Peak of Geminid meteor shower could produce colorful light show

By Brian Lada, Accuweather.com

The Geminid meteor shower is set to peak Monday night into Tuesday morning, but the presence of another celestial object may limit the viewing potential for one of the best annual meteor showers.

A reason why the Geminids are so popular is due to the fact that the shower is active all night long, not just during the middle of the night. It also boasts over 100 meteors per hour under ideal conditions, but onlookers should curb expectations for this year's showing due to the moon.

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"The bright gibbous moon will hinder viewing conditions this year," Robert Lunsford told AccuWeather in an email. Lunsford is the journal editor for the American Meteor Society. "The moonlight will obscure the fainter Geminids, which make up a majority of the meteors seen."

However, the moon will not be glowing all night long, providing a window of opportunity for some good viewing.

A multicolored meteor streaks across the night sky. Image courtesy of Siarakduz
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Meteors will start to streak across the sky shortly after nightfall at a rate of around 10 to 15 meteors per hour. This rate will gradually increase as the night progresses.

"The best hourly rates (around 40) will be seen just after moonset around 2 a.m. local time," Lunsford explained. Although this is less than half of what can unfold during ideal conditions, it is still a higher hourly rate than many other meteor showers throughout the year.

Lunsford added that fewer meteors will be visible for areas closer to big cities while more meteors can be viewed in rural locations. Additionally, lower rates are expected in the Southern Hemisphere.

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Meteors associated with the Geminids can appear in any area of the sky, not just near the shower's radiant point, which is near the constellation Gemini. With the moon a viewing concern this year, it will be best to keep the bright moon out of sight and to focus on a darker area of the sky where there is a higher chance of seeing dimmer meteors.

The Geminids also present an opportunity to spot colorful meteors that stand out in the dark night sky.

"Strong showers such as the Geminids and Perseids offer a better opportunity of seeing colorful meteors only because there are more of them over the entire brightness range to be seen," Lunsford explained.

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These colors are created by the elements that comprise the meteors. As the meteors burn up while entering Earth's atmosphere, the different elements emit different colors. Some shooting stars can even feature multiple colors.

The Colors of a Meteor HD.jpg

For the first time since 2014, cloud-free conditions are predicted for the peak of the Geminids across most of the eastern United States. Every year between 2014 and 2021, many areas from Maine to Michigan and southward through Mississippi had to contend with disruptive clouds for the peak of the mid-December meteor shower.

The weather will also be favorable for most of the central United States on Monday night into Tuesday morning.

Areas farther north and farther west will not be as fortunate with widespread clouds expected across the West Coast, Rocky Mountains and into Canada. However, there could be enough breaks in the clouds for those in parts of Quebec and Atlantic Canada to enjoy the meteor shower.

The Geminids will be active for several nights surrounding the peak, so if cloudy conditions are in the forecast for Monday night, sky watchers can step outside on the nights leading up to or immediately following the shower for the chance to spot some shooting stars.

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Regardless of which night folks decide to watch the Geminids, Lunsford recommends using a lounge chair and bringing a blanket for a comfortable night of stargazing. He also suggests dedicating some time for the best chance to watch the event.

"Watching for 30 minutes or more will provide a better view of the overall activity," Lunsford explained. "Meteor [showers] have peaks and valleys of activity. If you watch for only 15 minutes, you may be viewing during one of the lulls of activity and see very little."

There will be two more meteor showers to mark on the calendar in the wake of the Geminids before a meteor shower drought takes place.

The Ursid meteor shower peaks a little more than a week after the Geminids on the night of Dec. 21 into Dec. 22 and typically features around 10 meteors per hour. This is followed up by the Quadrantids on the night of Jan. 2 into Jan. 3, which can spark over 20 meteors per hour.

After the Ursids and Quadrantids, there will be a nearly four-month pause before the next moderate meteor shower peaks in late April.

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