Fabulous Meteor Shower Heads This Way

The Geminid meteor shower started last Friday and, this weekend, it'll be going out in a blaze of glory. Michael Bakich, senior editor of Astronomy magazine, tells you where to look.

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Unidentified Man: This is the Earth at a time when the dinosaurs roamed a lush and fertile planet.

(Soundbite of rumbling sounds)

Unidentified Man: A piece of rock just six miles wide changed all that.

(Soundbite of explosion)

Unidentified Man: (As Narrator) It hit with the force of 10,000 nuclear weapons. A trillion tons of dirt and rock hurtled into the atmosphere, creating a suffocating blanket of dust the sun was powerless to penetrate for a thousand years. It happened before. It will happen again. It's just a question of when.

LUKE BURBANK, host:

Well, I guess that's it, people. Even as we speak, hundreds of meteors per hour are heading straight for the Earth. It was a good run, everybody. Tirza Sanchez(ph) from eight grade, I always loved you. Oh, wait. Actually, the meteors, I'm reading, are less than the size of the pea, and they pose no threat. And apparently, they're beautiful.

Alison, I really got to start pre-reading these scripts.

ALISON STEWART, host:

That would be a good thing.

BURBANK: I'm a little ahead of myself. This meteor shower is known as Gemenid. It started last Friday. And this weekend, it'll be going out in a blaze of glory, Jon Bon Jovi style.

With us now to talk about Gemenid is Michael Bakich, senior editor of Astronomy magazine.

Hi, Michael.

Mr. MICHAEL BAKICH (Senior Editor, Astronomy magazine): Hi, Luke. How are you doing today?

BURBANK: Great. Thanks very much for coming on. Just starting out, what exactly is the Gemenid? It's - how is it like kicking off all these little space rocks at roughly the same time every year?

Mr. BAKICH: Well, what happens is most meteor showers come from comets. This one's a little bit different. We can talk about that later. But as comets round the sun, they leave trail of particles in their wake. Now, if earth's orbit intersects that trail's orbit, we run into these particles. They enter the atmosphere, burn up, and we see them as streaks of light most people call shooting stars, or meteors.

BURBANK: So we're sort of orbiting into the debris field left behind by a comet.

Mr. BAKICH: That's correct. You can picture yourself driving through a snowstorm, and all of the snowflakes are coming at your windshield all at once. That's basically what's happening in space.

BURBANK: Okay. But Gemenid, you said, isn't actually the result of a comet?

Mr. BAKICH: That's right. The Gemenid meteor shower comes from an asteroid. It's an asteroid named Phaethon, who, in mythology, was son of Apollo. And it's the only meteor shower known to come from an asteroid.

BURBANK: Please forgive my, you know, lack of knowledge, but then what's different between an asteroid and a comet?

Mr. BAKICH: Good question. Asteroids are usually considered rocky bodies. Most of them orbit in a belt - it's called a belt - between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Comets, on the other hand, consider them as dirty snowballs. They're these orbs of frozen gases with some dust mixed in. So as they come closer to the sun, the sun's heat and radiation kind of boils off the gases, and that's how these particles get distributed. Now Phaethon, although an asteroid, is probably a lot more comet-like in its makeup than most of the other asteroids. And that's how it caused the Gemenid meteor shower.

STEWART: Hey, Michael, how do you spell Phaethon? I'm Googling madly here, and I can't spell it right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BAKICH: It's P-H-A-E-T-H-O-N.

STEWART: Thank you, sir.

BURBANK: All right.

STEWART: Oh, there it is.

BURBANK: So can people see the Gemenid shower this weekend with the naked eye, or do you need like a big set up?

Mr. BAKICH: Now, that's one of the cool things about meteor showers. You don't need any equipment at all, although a chair helps.

BURBANK: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Some coffee.

Mr. BAKICH: Especially one that reclines. But, no, this is an absolutely a naked-eye event. Now that being said, believe it or not, some of the Gemenids are bright enough that they will leave smoke trains, you know, above that persist for several seconds, sometimes a minute or more. And for that reason only, it might nice to have binoculars nearby so you can kind of follow the smoke train of a particularly bright meteor.

BURBANK: Are people in big cities like New York City where we are going to be less able to see it because of all the light?

Mr. BAKICH: Yes. Unfortunately, the brighter your sky, the fewer meteors you'll see. It's just a natural law of observing.

BURBANK: Where is the best place in America that has any kind of a zip code to see this? Do you know?

Mr. BAKICH: Well, the zip codes really don't matter for this particular shower, because it's strong all the way from sunset Friday night to sunrise Saturday morning. So if your site is dark, and, of course, clear - if your site is dark, you have a good chance of seeing quite a few meteors.

BURBANK: Can somebody just walk outside, Friday night, once it's dark, look up in the sky and see evidence of this?

Mr. BAKICH: You know, it's a law of averages. On average, from a dark site, you'll see roughly 100 to 120 meteors per hour. That's two meteors per minute. Now, just going out and glancing up at any particular moment, you may not see one. But if you spend half an hour, let's say, in a chair looking up at the sky, I can guarantee you you'll see several dozen meteors.

BURBANK: And there's not a specific quadrant of the sky I should be looking at? I shouldn't be trying to look towards the Big Dipper or something? It's just anywhere up there, this could be happening.

Mr. BAKICH: Right. Early in the evening when the moon is still up, and the moon is reasonably seen crescent. It sets mid-evening. Early in the evening, I'd look midway up in the east. And then for the rest of the night after moon set, the best place to look is overhead. And glancing around doesn't help at all, or it doesn't hurt at all.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Well, what if I have one of the super high-powered telescopes that somebody gave me from Hammacher Schlemmicker sometime - one Christmas. Should I haul that out? Will the view be that much different through a telescope?

Mr. BAKICH: It certainly will. A telescope, because it magnifies a portion of the sky, will limit your field of view, so you have to get really, really, really lucky to see a meteor through a telescope.

STEWART: So it's probably better just to sit on a lawn chair, is what you're saying.

Mr. BAKICH: Exactly, exactly.

STEWART: Okay.

BURBANK: Take that, people who I didn't give a telescope to.

Mr. BAKICH: Now, of course, if you happen to have a high-powered telescope, you can go out and you can look at other things in the sky. And then, you know, whenever you feel like it, you can return to your lawn chair and enjoy the meteor shower.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BAKICH: That's one of the cool things about meteor showers, is they last a long time. It's not an event that happens, you know, in just a few seconds or a few minutes. This is going to be the entire night. And the moon won't be out. So if you're sky is clear, it will be dark.

BURBANK: Well, we'll - we're having a little get together on Brooklyn on Friday night, but we'll sort of step out of Jackie's Fifth Amendment and gaze upward and see if we can see a Gemenid up there.

Michael Bakich, the senior editor of Astronomy magazine.

Thanks, man.

Mr. BAKICH: My pleasure.

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