Annual Geminid meteor shower could be a good one in 2014, weather permitting

The annual Geminid meteor shower could be a fun show this weekend for Coloradans weather permitting, according to a University of Colorado Boulder astronomer.

While some experts are predicting as many as 120 meteors per hour to be visible on Saturday night, Denver-Boulder residents can expect about half that given the rise of the 3rd quarter moon near midnight on both days, said Seth Hornstein, director of CU-Boulder’s Sommers-Bausch Observatory. Due to the moonrise, the best time to watch for meteors this weekend will about 9 to 10 p.m., he said.

The name “Geminids” comes from the fact that the meteor trails — created by the asteroid 3200 Phaethon that passed near Earth several centuries ago — all point back to a location in the constellation Gemini, said Hornstein, also a faculty member in CU-Boulder’s Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences. “In reality, it just means that the debris cloud that the Earth is plowing through at about 70,000 mph is located in the direction of the Gemini constellation,” he said. “But meteor trails may be visible across all parts of the sky.”

Rather than using telescopes or binoculars, meteor showers are events best witnessed with the naked eye, said Hornstein. “Just laying out and letting your eyes adjust to the night sky is the best way to view a meteor shower,” he said. “But with snow a possibility for Saturday and Sunday, we may get clouded out here in Colorado.” Due to the size of the asteroid debris cloud, there is a chance some of the Geminid meteors will be visible in the nights before and after the Saturday night peak, Hornstein said.

Despite their bright appearance and long streak, most meteor particles are about the size of a grain of sand and don’t make it very far into the Earth’s atmosphere, said Hornstein. “Even the really bright ones are only about the size of a pea,” he said. “It really makes you appreciate how hot they get as they streak through the atmosphere.”

Free public open houses are held on SBO’s observing deck on Friday evenings, weather permitting, throughout the spring, summer, and fall semesters whenever CU-Boulder is in session. In addition to 16-inch and 18-inch telescopes, SBO also has tripod-mounted binoculars and the world’s largest “starwheel” for identifying bright stars and constellations. Most evening programs are hosted by APS department graduate students.

For more information on the observatory visit sbo.colorado.edu.

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