Are you looking for ways to make your Holiday Season … out of this world? The annual Geminid Meteor Shower is happening again. And this time it brought a friend: Meet the “Christmas Comet” (otherwise known as 46P/Wirtanen).
Jolly Ol’ Saint 46P/Wirtanen
46P/Wirtanen is said to be the brightest comet of the year and is swinging past our neighborhood late on Sunday, December 16 (or early December 17 for my fellow Australians).
Ending the year with a bang, Comet 46P/Wirtanen is super bright and super close. Now, when we say “close”, we mean around 7 million miles away from Earth. Not close enough to run for your nearest bunker but close enough to be visible with minimal equipment. In fact, the “Christmas Comet” is already visible with a pair of binoculars but it will be at its brightest between December 14 and December 18. It’s still a little blurry for the naked eye.
Where to Look: If you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, your ideal time is anytime after dark. Look for the Pleiades star cluster towards the south and then keep looking for a glow just before it.
If you’re in the Southern Hemisphere, look towards the north-eastern sky. The comet will be approximately on a line between Aldebaran (part of the Taurus constellation, not far from Gemini) and the Pleiades cluster.
12 Days of Geminids
If you really want to make an event out of it, you can also catch the Geminid Meteor Shower from now until around December 18. It is predicted to be the best meteor shower of 2018, with peak activity on Friday, December 14. The Geminids owe their name to the constellation Gemini because the meteors seem to come from this area of the sky.
Last year, the Evil Genius family took a road trip and camped out outside Canberra (Australia) to view the Geminids. We made a huge weekend of it: We camped at the Honeysuckle Campgrounds, the original site for the satellite dish that captured the very first step on the moon. Do not believe the infamous Australian movie, The Dish. TL; dr – Parkes had a problem and Honeysuckle jumped in to save the day.
The Honeysuckle Campgrounds were perfect for viewing the Geminids. They are raised up on a very high hill and far away from the city lights of Canberra. We all stayed up past midnight with blankets laid out on the ground, staring up at the sky. I don’t remember exactly how many we saw but it was beautiful watching the shooting stars and listening to the kids’ excitement. The next day, we walked around the outdoor display honouring the lunar landing. We also visited the Deep Space Communication Centre and the Mt Stromlo Observatory, to round out our very space-y weekend.
This year, we are not planning anything quite as elaborate but we all have been raving about it enough to inspire some friends to take their own galactic space trip. The best tip for viewing the Geminids is to escape the city. The less light pollution the better; camping trips are perfect.
This is one of those events where you can take your time (read: be patient). Lie back, allow your eyes to adjust to the dark and then enjoy the show. Last year brought estimates of 50 meteors per hour (at its peak). Kids love the shooting stars and it creates a great opportunity to talk about space while you wait.
Where to Look: The Geminids do tend to favor the Northern Hemisphere. Not exactly ideal in the cold weather, so make sure you rug up and bring a thermos of hot chocolate. The best time for Geminid viewing is around 2 am, however you can start anytime that suits you. It might take a little longer to spot your first shooting star. While you don’t really need a specific direction to look in, start your gazing with the Gemini constellation and you should see the meteors shooting from there. Look in the southwestern sky for the Orion constellation (and he’s three-star-belt). Then look up and to the left.
For our Southern counterparts, Gemini sits to the lower right of Orion and both are hanging around the northwestern sky.
Both the “Christmas Comet” and the Geminids don’t require any extra special equipment, which is why they are perfect for space-geek kids. If you happen to catch any photos of the event, don’t forget to tag #GeekMom in your social media; Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.