Secret origins of Geminids meteor shower revealed by new research

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — One of the most spectacular shows of the year will be on display this week: the Geminids meteor shower. According to NASA, the Geminids peak each December on the 13th and 14th. Stargazers can see up to 120 meteors per hour during the show.

This meteor shower is a little different than your typical meteor shower.

“Most (meteor) streams are formed by comets regularly passing by the sun. As they do that they release a bunch of material,” said Jamey Szalay, a research scientist with Princeton University.

According to Szalay, the Geminids were formed from the remnants of 3200 Phaethon. “It probably all formed very rapidly and catastrophically.”

New research from Princeton University has revealed potentially how this happened.

How to create a meteor shower

When a comet orbits the sun, its icy shell melts and leaves behind a trail or tube of debris. “When (the) Earth flies through the tube, the meteors in that tube hit Earth and we see them as streaks in our sky,” said Wolf Cukier, an undergraduate student at Princeton who recently published a paper on the Geminids that may have answered questions about its origins.

According to Cukier, the Geminids come from this same sort of debris tube. This tube, however was made by 3200 Phaethon.

3200 Phaethon is a small asteroid in orbit around our sun, according to NASA. Discovered in 1983, the asteroid orbits the sun every 1.4 years. The asteroid is made of metal and rock, materials not typically influenced the way as a comet’s icy shell.

However, Szalay said the asteroid does exhibit activity driven by changes in temperature during its orbit, which again is atypical.

It is the first asteroid to be associated with a meteor shower, with some thinking it may be a “dead comet” or “rock comet”.

Viewing the Geminids meteor shower

Observations taken by the Parker Space Probe, Earth’s closest vessel to the sun, revealed that the distance between the Geminids and Phaethon’s orbit are further apart than anticipated. Cukier wanted to know how this happened and ran several simulations.

The simulations revealed that a violent event likely created the debris field. “This could be a thermal breakup, as the asteroid or its parent body got closer to the sun, it kind of exploded due to internal stresses caused by heat,” Cukier said.

Other possibilities include a collision between the asteroid and another body, although Cukier said that is unlikely.

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“The only way to get this material outside the orbit to be consistent with the images we got with Parker was to have something very catastrophic, very intense happened,” said Szalay, a co-author on the paper.

The possibly violent birth of the Geminids doesn’t mean they are violent today. Most of the dust and rocks in the meteor showers burn up in our atmosphere, with only a few rare pebbles making it to the ground.

According to Anita Cochran, Assistant Director at the University of Texas’ McDonald Observatory, falling meteors can reach 10,000-degrees Kelvin. These rocks burn up with seconds.

The best way to view the Geminids is to get away from city lights and look towards the Northeast. Late night to early dawn hours are great times to see the meteors. Luckily a waxing crescent moon means less light in the sky.

The meteor shower will continue until December 24th.

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