The Geminid meteor shower peaks in the early morning hours of Tuesday, 14 December, 2010 (4 am, MST). The Moon is a day past 1st quarter, meaning it will set around 2 am, making meteor watching in the pre-dawn hours really good. For all meteor showers, the best time to observe is the pre-dawn hours for your specific location. That is when your part of the Earth is turning into the debris field left behind the shower’s parent body.
There is a predicted peak rate of 120 meteors per hour this year. The high peak rate, no Moon in the sky at peak time, and peak time occurring in the pre-dawn hours (mountain time) makes this meteor shower one not to miss.
The shower is named for the constellation Gemini, which contains the radiant of the shower. Gemini is high in the south, near the zenith at 2 am on the morning of the 14th. The radiant is the source point for Geminid meteors. Meteors will be visible across the sky, but the familiar streak of light can be traced backward to the constellation Gemini. No need for a telescope or binoculars. Just bundle up warm and watch the entire sky.
The Geminid shower is rather unique in that its origin is an asteroid, not a comet. In the 1980s it was confirmed that asteroid 3200 Phaethon was the origin of the Geminid meteor shower, the only major shower to be associated with an asteroid rather than a comet.
If you do get up real early for this shower, you should also note that Saturn and Venus will rise in the southeast in these early morning hours. Actual rise time will depend upon your view of the eastern horizon and the angle relative to mountains, but look for Saturn after 2:30 am and Venus after 4 am. Saturn is a dirty yellow color and a decent magnitude +1. Venus is brilliant at magnitude -4.6, just about the brightest it can be.
Here’s hoping for clear skies!