Here come the Geminid meteor shower! These meteors are usually the highlight of the meteor year and the shower peaks this weekend, with the expected rate of around 150 meteors per hour. The best display comes on Sunday night and as there is no Moon out to disturb the observations, Geminids this year will bring us one of the most spectacular displays in years. Here is what you need to know about the shower, how to photograph meteors, and where will be the best conditions.

No matter where you live on Earth, there are two greatest meteor showers every year. Those are August’s Perseids and December’s Geminids.

If we are lucky and the Moon isn’t out and full and the skies are crystal clear, the peaks of both of these meteor showers can bring the skywatchers around the world hundreds of meteors through the peak nights. Both these meteor showers are known as the most reliable night sky events every year.

And this year, 2020, there is something special as several events are aligned and we could see one of the most spectacular Geminid meteor shower displays in years!

The meteor shower is getting stronger every year, as the debris stream which is the source of the Geminids is thickening over time. At the same time, the peak occurs very close to the Earth’s perihelion, this means when our orbital speed is greatest, leading to faster meteors.

Geminids meteor shower over Atlantic coast, Portugal 2018. Photo by Marko Korošec
 

And finally, this year, the Geminid meteor shower coincides with a New Moon, creating near-perfect sky conditions around the world.

Wait, there is even more for a certain part of the world – a total solar eclipse occurs on December 14th across Chile and Argentina. So skywatchers over there will have a unique opportunity to observe and photograph Geminid meteors during the moment of eclipse totality. Can you imagine such a composition?!

The peak of the Geminid meteor shower this year is on December 14th, at 00:50 UTC (2 am central Europe). In other words, this means *perfect* conditions for observers in Europe as meteors are normally best visible in the final pre-dawn hours as the radiant is higher in the sky.

Although the peak happens on Dec 14th morning, Geminids activity will remain quite high also in the nights around as well, from Dec 11/12th to Dec 15/16th.

WHAT IS EXPECTED FOR GEMINIDS’ 2020 SHOWER?

 

Geminid meteor shower is known as the best and most reliable of the major annual meteor showers. In the mid-latitudes, the radiant rises around sunset, reaching the usable elevation for observations from the local evening hours onwards.

This year, Geminids are expected to produce 80-120 meteors per hour under clear and dark skies each night this weekend into early next week, with potentially even more than 150 meteors per hour during the peak hours from Sunday evening until dawn Monday, Dec 13/14th.

In the southern hemisphere, the radiant appears only around local midnight hours or so, as it culminates near 2 am local time. Even for more southerly observers, Geminid shower produces a great show of often bright, medium-speed meteors.

While the Geminids are by far the best annual meteor shower, they are also notoriously difficult for observations. The mid-December weather patterns are often unsettled and many locations are under clouds or high moisture, so observing conditions are much more difficult than during the summer meteors, e.g. Perseid meteor shower.

Interestingly, the peak rate of meteors (ZHR*) has shown there is a slight increase over a longer period and reached around 140–150 meteors per hour in all the recent years. Typically, near-peak Geminid meteor rates persist for several hours, so much of the world has the chance to enjoy at least part of the shower’s peak show.

*ZHR – Zenithal Hourly Rate of a meteor shower is the number of meteors a single observer would see in an hour of peak activity if it was at the zenith. Indeed assumed that the conditions are excellent (this means that stars are visible up to magnitude 6.5). The rate that can effectively be seen is nearly always lower and decreases the closer the radiant is to the horizon.

And what is great with the 2020 Geminid meteor shower is that its return coincides with a completely new Moon, so therefore the peak is optimally placed for a spectacular celestial show this year!

WHAT ABOUT THE TEMPERATURE CONDITIONS?

 

Will it be freezing or warm at your location during the long nights this weekend? Here is the high-resolution 2-meter temperature forecast across Europe and the United States until Monday:

Also, be sure not to wait until the peak night to watch and photograph these meteors, as we expect all nights from Friday night through Tuesday night to produce a great meteor shower display.

Long story short: The New Moon and the Earth are in just a great position for a spectacular show this year. If the clouds cooperate during the peak on Sunday and Monday, Dec 13th and the 14th, treat yourself to the greatest natural show of the year (or recent years)!

GEMINIDS – UNUSUAL METEOR SHOWER

 

The Geminids are – in addition to being the strongest and the most reliable annual meteor showers – one of the weirdest meteor showers. While the vast majority of meteor showers originate from comets, icy dirtballs on elongated orbits around the Sun, the Geminids originate from an asteroid. The parent body from which all the bits and pieces that burn up in our atmosphere as the Geminids, is asteroid (3200) Phaethon.

Phaethon is a relatively small space rock: it is only about 5.8 km in diameter, it orbits the Sun in a very elongated elliptical orbit that takes it into the inner parts of the Asteroid belt at its farthest from the Sun, to well within the orbit of Mercury at its closest to the Sun.

An asteroid. Image: Universe Today
 

It is also designated as a Potentially hazardous asteroid, as it can come as close as 2.9 million km to the Earth (7.6 Earth-Moon distances). It currently poses no impact threat for Earth.

And the Geminids are actually getting stronger every year and a half (approximately 18 months), as that is the time required for Phaethon to complete an orbit around the Sun.

Meteoroids – dust particles that produce meteors – of most meteor showers come from comets. They are released from the comet’s nucleus by outgassing as the comet rounds the Sun and warms up. An asteroid does not contain volatile ices that could produce outgassing as it rounds the Sun.

So, the mechanism by which Geminid meteoroids are released from asteroid Phaethon is still a mystery. Observations have shown it to occasionally brighten and develop slight cometary features when it is close to the Sun, so some researchers are calling it a ‘rock comet’, proposing that bits and pieces are breaking off the asteroid.

Indeed, the surface of the asteroid heats up 700 °C as it rounds the Sun more than twice as close as the scorching hot Mercury, producing thermal stress on the rock on the asteroid’s surface as well as a breakdown of clay minerals. This material is then blown from the asteroid’s surface by the Sun’s radiation pressure.

Other researchers argue that the amount of Geminid meteoroids is so great it could only have come from the breakup of a larger parent asteroid, with the largest remnant being the 5.6-km Phaethon.

Geminids – a young meteor shower

 

The first time Geminids was noticed was in the 1830s. There are no reports of sightings of the shower prior to that. It is highly unlikely that the Geminids would have been missed – other annual meteor showers, such as the Lyrids, the Perseids, and the Leonids had been observed for centuries.

Since the first sighting less than two hundred years ago the Geminid meteor shower has been increasing in strength and is now the strongest annual meteor shower, by quite a significant margin compared to other meteor showers.

WHERE TO SEE THE GEMINIDS?

 

Here is another area in which the Geminids excel. Unlike most other meteor showers, the Geminids can be seen well already in the evening hours. In fact, Geminids can be seen throughout the night! The visibility of the meteor shower and the number of meteors is closely tied to the position of the constellation of Gemini in the sky.

All Geminids will look like they come from a point in the sky in the constellation Gemini (The Twins): even on the other side of the sky, if you trace a Geminid’s track backward it will come to Gemini. This point in the sky is called the radiant. The higher the radiant is in the sky, the more meteors appear.

Geminid radiant position during the peak night. Image by Space.com
 

In the early evening hours, the radiant is low in the eastern sky, rising higher in the sky during the evening. It is the highest around midnight and into early morning hours when also the activity of the Geminids will be highest. The activity diminishes towards the dawn as the radiant descends into the western sky, but there will be plenty of Geminids in the sky just before dawn.

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As with every meteor shower or night sky observation, one of the most important factors is the weather. No matter how intense the meteors can be, how ideal conditions moonless nights can bring, if there are cloudy skies, you’re out of any chances to see meteors or the sky itself.

Let’s see how the weather will permit or limit the observations across Europe and the United States during the peak this weekend and in the early days next week.

GEMINID METEOR SHOWER ACROSS EUROPE

 

The Geminid meteor shower over Europe will happen during a sort of transition pattern this year. There will be a very powerful upper trough developing over the North Atlantic into western Europe, while a large upper low will be ongoing over the Mediterranean and southern Balkan peninsula.

In between these lows, upper-level ridging will build up over southwestern Europe, gradually expanding into central Europe and connect with the extensive ridge over Russia.

This will allow relatively stable conditions in this broad zone, extending from Iberia across the Alps into Scandinavia and the Baltic region.

Saturday night, Dec 12/13th

 

If we now take a look over the total cloud cover across Europe on the pre-peak night (Saturday night), we can see the cloudiness will likely be spread across a large part of Europe. Very poor to non-existing chances are seen over northern, eastern, and central Europe, as well as over the Balkans.

Cloud cover over Europe on Saturday night. Image by: Windy.com
 

However, there are some breaks in clouds possible in some areas. While especially a large part of Iberia and the western Mediterranean can expect clear skies or at least good conditions for skywatchers. Some chances for clear skies are also possible over parts of the UK, northern France, and northwestern Italy. Possibly also western Norway.

Sunday night, Dec 13/14th

 

But now, let’s see what the peak night brings us, so Sunday night into Monday morning. The progress of the deep North Atlantic depression further east will also push clouds onto Iberia, so chances there will be shut down. It, unfortunately, remains totally cloudy across northern and eastern Europe, as well as the Balkan peninsula and western Europe.

But conditions do improve over the Mediterranean and central Europe. It seems that Föehn conditions could develop from the Alps as northwesterly flow establishes under the strengthening upper ridge and surface high-pressure systems. Simplified, this means clearing skies!

Cloud cover over Europe on Sunday night. Image by: Windy.com
 

As we can see, areas around the Alps, most of Italy, possibly southern France, Algeria, and Tunisia could have the most important ingredient ready. This will introduce great night conditions for skywatches.

GEMINID METEOR SHOWER ACROSS THE UNITED STATES

 

Now let’s take a look at what’s on the plate for the United States skywatchers. The developing omega blocking pattern this weekend will be actually quite good, as an upper-level ridge strengthens across the central parts of the country. This, however, means that on both sides of the ridge, there will be troughs that should disturb the observations.

But stable weather will spread across the central portions at least, so conditions will be quite favorable and chances are quite high for some good observing nights around the Geminid meteor shower peak.

Saturday night, Dec 12/13th

 

Here is the cloud cover across the Contiguous United States on the pre-peak, Saturday night. As mentioned earlier, the troughs across the East Coast and the Pacific Northwest will support cloudiness, therefore chances are rather poor in these areas.

But conditions will be improving across the Rockies, actually extending from Mexico across Arizona, Utah, Colorado north to Wyoming, Nebraska, and South Dakota. These areas should have some very nice skies, especially as also very dark skies are over there with very low light pollution.

Cloud cover over the United States on Saturday night. Image by: Windy.com
 

There will also be some changes across the Southeast United States, possibly also Virginia and New York on Saturday night.

Sunday night, Dec 13/14th

 

And the Sunday night, the peak night for the Geminid meteor shower of 2020 also across the North American continent, will significantly improve across the central parts of the United States.

Perfectly clear skies are expected across Mexico, Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, and Iowa. Also partly in the surrounding states.

Cloud cover over the United States on Sunday night. Image by: Windy.com
 

Unfortunately, poor observing conditions are expected across the western and also eastern Contiguous United States. Therefore, only parts of California and southern Nevada, possibly southern Florida will have some chances.

The push of the frontal system from the Northwest further east, will likely spread high-level clouds across the north-central Rockies as well.

So, as we can see, at least the central parts of the United States will enjoy the ideal conditions this year. With the New Moon and a high hourly rate of Geminids forecasted, skywatches can expect a very spectacular celestial show!

METEOR PHOTOGRAPHY – HOW TO PHOTOGRAPHY A METEOR SHOWER

 

Are you, besides watching the sky, also interested in photographing the meteors? Meteor photography is loads of fun and with a bit of luck, you can catch a big, bright meteor! Here is how you do it.

A composite of Geminid meteor shower over mt. Kanin, Slovenia. Photo by Marko Korošec

EQUIPMENT

 

  • A camera with the option of making long exposures. Any interchangeable lens camera (DSLR or mirrorless) will have the option, many compact cameras and some phone cameras also have the option.
  • A remote trigger for the camera (or timer)
  • A tripod
  • A meteor shower. The stronger, the better
HOW TO PHOTOGRAPH – CAMERA SETTINGS

 

The best time to photograph meteors is during a maximum of major meteor showers, such as the Quadrantids, Perseids, and Geminids. Moderately strong meteor showers, such as the Lyrids, Southern Delta Aquarids, Orionids, Taurids, Leonids, and Ursids are fine too. When photographing meteors avoid using Auto and preset scene modes.

You need to be in control of the camera. Set the mode to long exposure. There are several ways about it and they may vary depending on your camera brand. One of these is the M – Manual. Some cameras may have B – Bulb mode. This mode allows you to use a remote trigger to do exposures of any length.

Camera shooting modes
 

The other mode that is useful is the shutter priority mode (Tv or S). With this mode, you can select the exposure time for your photo. All interchangeable lens cameras have these modes, regardless of the brand – Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Sony, or any other, you will be fine.

HOW TO PHOTOGRAPH – CHOOSING LENS

 

Virtually any wide-field or standard lens will do, so will any mid-range zooms. Most entry and up to prosumer crop sensor (DX or APS-C) cameras come with a mid-range ‘kit’ zoom lens, which is usually between 16 and 18 mm at the wide end and f/2.8 to f/3.5.

These are fine for meteor photography. Just use a sufficiently high ISO setting to capture meteors, 1600 or more will be good. How far up the ISO scale you want to go depends mostly on your tolerance for noise. 50 mm standard lenses are fine too, usually f/1.4 to f/1.8, they gather a lot of light, so they can capture fainter meteors than mid-range zooms.

The downside of these lenses is the small field of view, particularly on crop sensor cameras. 50 mm will be OK, but do not go to longer focal lengths as the field of view becomes too small.

A composite of Perseid over Rijeka, Croatia during the peak in 2019. Photo by Marko Korošec
 

The best lenses for meteors are the newest wide-field lenses with maximum aperture f/1.4 to f/2.0, available from several brands (Samyang, Rokinon, and, especially, new Sigma Art).

In the field, after you select the mode and prepare the camera (mounted on the tripod), make sure the camera is level. Look through the viewfinder and make sure the horizon is level. Then focus on the lens. The easiest way to do it is to set it to manual focus and focus it on a distant light or a star. Use live view (with maximum magnification) for this.

Once you have focused, keep the lens in manual focus mode to avoid the camera refocusing. Set the aperture to fully open and the ISO and you are ready to go.

Be ready to shoot *many* photos before catching the first good meteor, but the more persistent you are, the more likely you are to catch a great one!

A bright Perseid meteor. Photo by Marko Korošec
 

The photo above shows what a typical meteor will look like. A streak of light, likely greenish. Unlike satellites, a meteor will have a relatively smooth light curve – brightening steadily, brightest in the second half of its trail, a more steep brightness drop-off at the end.

Brighter meteors can be punctuated by irregular brightness flares.

SOME ADDITIONAL PHOTOGRAPHY TIPS

 

  • Don’t get the background too bright, you want good contrast between the sky and meteors. Typically a histogram with a peak around 1/8 to 1/6 full (left to right) is considered optimal. This will depend on the lens you use, ISO setting, and how dark your sky is. Fast lenses and high ISO settings will get your background bright faster. A bright, light-polluted sky will also get the background bright faster. An f/2.8 lens at ISO3200 under a good rural sky will take about 20-30 seconds.
  • Very fast lenses, f/1.2 to f/1.8 will produce the best results under dark skies. Brighter, light-polluted skies will saturate the background quickly.
  • Don’t use too short exposures. The shorter you go, the more likely you are to get a ruined photo by ending the exposure in the middle of a bright meteor. This is extremely frustrating. With a 10-second exposure, you will probably ruin 5-10% of meteors.
  • Keep your horizon in the photo. Most bright meteors appear close to the horizon – you look through a larger volume of the atmosphere close to the horizon than overhead. If you use a 50 mm or another longer focal length, fast prime lens, keep your field close to the radiant. Otherwise, meteors will be too long to fit into your field of view.
  • Turn off your High ISO noise reduction. You can do noise reduction in post-processing.
  • Turn off your Long exposure noise reduction. At this setting the camera makes a dark exposure for every photo you make – you will only photograph the sky for 50% of the time, missing half the meteors. There are few things as frustrating as missing a superb meteor while your camera is making a dark exposure.

Numerous Perseids radiate from the constellation Perseus. Note the bright fireball on the left! Photo by Marko Korošec
 

  • Shoot in RAW format, or RAW + JPEG. It pays off to have a RAW photo to edit later.
  • Keep your white balance on AUTO. It typically works best. You may want to change to a warmer setting (some prefer 3700 K) under light-polluted skies, if there is variable cloud cover and the clouds are illuminated by light pollution or if your camera is having trouble keeping the white balance constant. Shoot RAW and you can correct white balance in post-processing.
  • Use Live View and a bright star or very distant lights to focus your photo. Make absolutely sure your focus is dead on. There are few things as frustrating as out-of-focus photos of bright meteors. Keep your camera and lens in manual focus mode, otherwise, it will try to refocus once you start your exposures and your photos will be out of focus.
  • Try to avoid areas with moist air: find a hilltop or ridge, avoid depressions. Once your lens dews up it is next to impossible to keep photographing. You can leave a spare lens in your car and use it as a replacement once your first lens dews up. Get the other lens into the car to warm it up. Alternatively, lens warmer bands are available by a number of suppliers: they run on batteries and keep the lens just warm enough not to dew up.
  • Bring backup batteries. And spare memory cards.
  • Cameras do not see meteors as well as your eyes. A fairly bright meteor, as bright as the brightest stars, will register on your photo as a faint streak of light. You will need a really bright one to produce a beautiful photo. Only if you use very fast lenses and very high ISO settings will even moderately bright meteors look significant. But do not be discouraged, with a little luck and perseverance you *will* get a fine photo!
WHAT TO EXPECT?

 
Honestly? Well, be ready to shoot many photos before a good catch! Be prepared to spend at least an hour or two under the stars to catch a good one, even in the strongest of meteor showers, like the Perseids or the Geminids.

Moderate meteor showers like the Lyrids or the Orionids take more time. But the more time you spend photographing a meteor shower, the better the chances are you will catch a good one.

A composite of Perseids behind a wind turbine. Photo by Marko Korošec
 

Meteor photography can often bring hours and hours of shooting. But, when things go right… whoa! Imagine you catch an exploding fireball?

A Lyrid fireball shoots down the Milky Way. Note the reflection in the sea. Photo by Marko Korošec
 

CONCLUSION – GEMINIDS 2020: A SPECTACULAR DISPLAY

 

What can we say for the end? Well, certainly don’t miss this one out! Seriously!

Despite the quite difficult weather patterns during the winter months and what appears likely also a quite challenging weather condition in 2020, take this one very seriously.

Geminids this year, are expected to produce around 80-120 meteors per hour during each night this weekend into early next week. The peak occurs from Sunday evening until dawn Monday, Dec 13/14th, with very likely the ZHR – Zenithal Hourly Rate – of more than 150 meteors per hour!

And what is also one of the greatest facts with the 2020 Geminids is that they finally coincide with a completely new Moon, so a moonless night is expected. Therefore, the Geminid meteor shower peak will happen with basically ideal conditions and we are up to a unique and a spectacular celestial show this year!

*ENJOY* your peak nights observing this potentially the most spectacular Geminids celestial display in years. And feel free to report your observations to our Facebook Report & Discuss group and if you catch some of them, we will be happy to share those for you!

Like the astronomers and astrophotographers would say – CLEAR SKIES!

See also:

Perseid meteor shower peaks this week, Aug 12/13th

 

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