Allow me to wax cosmic: There are certain events that take us outside of ourselves. Big ones, dwarfing our most significant human travails. Events where we look up for a moment and submit to the understanding that we’re part of a stupefying stellar picture, passing through a heavens so overwhelming that we’re simply owned – and there’s nothing to do but watch and accept our role in the show. Beautiful stuff.
I’m talking solar and lunar eclipses. I’m talking comets. And I’m talking meteor showers, the most intense of which is about to make its annual clockwork appearance, erupting out of Gemini early next week to the delight of night-sky devotees who never miss its arrival. The Earth, says NASA, “will pass through the Geminid debris stream, producing as many as 120 meteors per hour over dark-sky sites.” The shower will peak probably between midnight and sunrise on Tuesday, “when the Moon is low and the constellation Gemini is high overhead, spitting bright Geminids across a sparkling starry sky.” (See NASA waxes, too.)
The thing about the Geminids is that they’re unlike other meteor showers in that their “shooting stars” do not come from our passing through the tail of a comet, but rather from a “weird rocky object” called 3200 Phaethon. This smallish rock with an odd orbit is believed to have come from an impact event with asteroid called Pallas. In any event, there’s a ton of strange and unique features to this show, many of which remains a mystery to scientists. Its big deal, though, is, well, its bigness.
“Of all the debris streams Earth passes through every year, the Geminids’ is by far the most massive,” says NASA astronomer Bill Cooke. “When we add up the amount of dust in the Geminid stream, it outweighs other streams by factors of 5 to 500.” Says the NASA site: “This makes the Geminids the 900-lb gorilla of meteor showers.”
So go. Watch. Obey the heavens and enjoy the show.