Meteor shower to light up the sky next week

Meteor shower to light up the sky next week

One of the most dazzling meteor showers of the year will be lighting up the sky next week, weather permitting.

The Geminid shooting stars are due to peak overnight on December 14 when they could appear at a rate of more than one a minute.

With the moon absent for most of the night during the period of maximum activity, the chances of a spectacular show are said to be excellent - but only if skies are clear.

The meteors seem to originate from a "radiant" point in the constellation of Gemini. By 0200 GMT, the radiant will be almost overhead from the point of view of observers in the UK.

However, they are likely to be visible for a day or more either side of their peak period.

Meteors are small particles ranging from the size of a grain of sand to a pea that enter the Earth's atmosphere and burn up, producing a streak of light.

Usually they are shed by comets - dirty "snowballs" largely made of water ice - but the Geminids' parent body, the object 3200 Phaethon, has the characteristics of an asteroid. Many experts believe it to be an extinct comet.

In recent years the shower has become more intense as the gravitational influence of Jupiter and Saturn shifted a denser debris stream of particles closer to the Earth.

Professor Martin Barstow, president of the Royal Astronomical Society, encouraged people to brave the cold and watch the meteors.

He said: "A good meteor shower is a spectacular sight. If you have clear skies, there are few better and easier ways to get an impression of the dynamism of the universe we live in, and how the Earth is directly connected to events in the rest of the solar system."

Sky watchers can expect a different meteor experience at different times. Because of the rotation of the Earth, the debris cloud producing the Geminids skims the atmosphere in the early evening, generating fewer but dramatic "grazer" meteors with long trails.

Later on in the night, with the Earth directly facing the debris cloud, the number of meteors is usually much greater.