There’s a compulsion to stay snuggled in a blanket, especially for a December meteor shower. For one, clear skies mean cold temperatures. Another, as peak times vary, it’s incredibly inconvenient to set an alarm for 12:30 or 1:00 a.m.; why can’t we just be up late, or wake up early? Ostensibly, we resign ourselves that the mid-night drive to the country — or the walk outside, if you live away from city lights — darn well better be worth it.
Tonight, December 14, 2017 was definitely worth it.
Earth’s intersection with the orbital path of 3200 Phaethon, the parent object for the Gemind meteor shower, was clearly in the right place at the right time. The moon was nowhere to be found, skies for our area were abundantly clear, and no one had to wait for their dark-adapted vision to settle in. The streaks were plentiful, fast and bright. Since 3200 Phaethon is closer to earth than usual during this trip, it is possible that its debris stream both precedes and follows the former comet in its relatively short orbital path.
I drove to Key Cave and laid a mat near the pavilion, orienting it so my eyes would align horizontally with Alpha and Beta Geminorum. Castor appeared to the left, yellowish Pollux on the right. In this position, everything I saw was sky. To my left was Capella, and Arcturus had just risen over the east. The first flashes I observed were unconvincing, because they were outside the field of my corrective lenses. Maybe they were my imagination, or radio tower beacons. But it didn’t take long to realize that every changing source of light was a Geminid meteor.
Let me repeat that. Other than the stars, Every. Light. Source. Was. A. Geminid. Last month, I saw fifteen weak Leonids and nine satellites. Tonight, I didn’t even see an airplane. Just meteors, everywhere.
They radiated outward in every direction. Short streaks were bright and plentiful, both at the radiant near Castor, and all around the horizon. I chided myself for not turning my head to be more observant around the treeline, but the streaks kept coming. They fell with the greatest frequency I’d ever observed, and the most spectacular one of all seemed to split the sky in half with its silver brilliance. It was so bright, it caused the hood on my jacket to glow.
And sometimes the skies would become subdued. My anticipation would build, as I’d hear a train thunder by. If I ignored the mechanical horn sound, I could imagine its sonorous low rumble to resemble a herd of cattle in stampede. Or I’d listen to a pack of coyotes that began baying at the starlight, followed by another pack in a different direction that responded with its own cries. The calm wind gave way to a small breeze that blew gravel dust onto my face. I just laid there, keeping my eyes on the Twins, swallowed up by all of this magnificence.
It’s hard to imagine the earth moving in the vacuum of space, when the stars seem to remain still against the backdrop of sky. It’s somewhat stranger to comprehend our planet plowing through an oblique trail of dust, and weirder still to see these streaks as the evidence of that motion. Tonight’s show was so bountiful in its beauty, and the streaks so numerous, that you could almost make out that path overhead. It was definitely worth getting out of bed.
Here’s hope you can see 3200 Phaethon as it passes by on Saturday evening. Look between Mirphak and Algol at 6 p.m., according to EarthSky.