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Look to December skies for meteor shower and recently discovered comet

Geminid meteor shower

The spectacular Geminid meteor shower can be seen Dec. 4-17, peaking at about 2 a.m. Tuesday, Dec. 14. Joining it in the night sky is the recently discovered Comet Leonard. iStock photo

For skywatchers, December is a gift with one of the biggest and best meteor showers and a recently discovered comet.

The Geminid meteor shower began Dec. 4 and continues through about Dec. 17. According to NASA, it peaks at around 2 a.m. Tuesday, Dec. 14. 

It occurs as Earth moves through the remnants of 3200 Phaethon, which is either an asteroid or an extinct comet. The debris burns up as it enters our planet’s atmosphere, hence the meteor shower.

The Geminids are one of the most prolific and intense showers of the year with up to 150 meteors an hour during the peak and about 50-60 an hour outside of the peak.

The Northern Hemisphere, which includes Texas and the United States, often gets the best show.

The best way to see the Geminids is to find a dark spot outdoors, away from as much light as possible. Then, lie back and look up.

You should allow your eyes to adjust to the dark, so refrain from using any kind of light or looking at your phone. According to NASA, it takes about 30 minutes for a person’s eyes to acquire night vision.

While the Geminid meteor shower appears to originate, or radiate, from the Gemini constellation, and more precisely, the star Caster, don’t start looking in that area. Meteors tend to have shorter tails, or streaks, near the radiant, and you might miss them.

Instead, NASA recommends just watching the sky in general. Once you see some meteors, you can trace their paths back to the radiant, which will guide you to the Gemini constellation.

The Geminid meteor shower isn’t the only show in the sky in December. Comet Leonard, discovered in January 2021, is also visible, though better seen with binoculars or a telescope. Its brightest viewing time is Sunday-Tuesday, Dec. 12-14. 

Prior to Dec. 12, the best time to see the comet is an hour or two before dawn in the eastern sky just above the horizon. As Sunday approaches, the comet will edge closer to the horizon.

After Sunday, you can view the comet in the evening, with it being more visible in the southwest. It will be lower and closer to the horizon during the last part of December as it begins to fade. 

You’ll have to wait a long time to see Comet Leonard again. Astronomers estimate it takes tens of thousands of years to complete an orbit of the sun.

Visit the NASA website and the EarthSky website for more information on these events as well as how to view them.