The best light show of the year starts tonight, and thanks to NASA you've got a front row seat no matter where you are. The Geminid meteor shower, the largest and last meteor shower of the year, is being live streamed by NASA on the Internet from its start Dec. 13 through Dec. 14.
NASA is providing live streaming of the Geminid shower via a camera at its Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL (see live stream below).
The Geminid shower has always been considered one of the best meteor showers of the year, but this year's celestial event may be even more spectacular than usual. Not only will tonight's new moon phase ensure ample darkness for viewing the heavenly phenomenon, but a new and as-yet unnamed meteor shower may also make an appearance tonight, making the normally impressive cosmic wonder even more breathtaking.
"Meteors from the new shower (if any) will be visible in the early evening, with the Geminids making their appearance later on and lasting until dawn," Bill Cooke, head of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office, said in a statement.
"Dust from this comet hitting Earth's atmosphere could produce as many as 30 meteors per hour," he added.
Cooke says the potential new meteor shower comes from a comet known as Wirtanen, discovered in 1948. While Earth hasn't run into Wirtanen's debris stream before, computer models indicate this might be the first year our worlds cross paths.
If the new meteor shower does in fact materialize the shooting stars will appear to be coming from the constellation Pisces, thus, the shower may be deemed "the Piscids," noted NASA.
"The shower's radiant is located in the constellation Pisces, according to Maslov's dynamical models of the debris stream," said NASA's Dr. Tony Phillips. "Maslov also predicts that the meteors will be very slow moving, which should help novice sky watchers distinguish them from the faster Geminids.
Last year's Geminid shower seriously compromised by bright moonlight when a glowing gibbous moon came up over the horizon during the late evening hours and washed-out many of the fainter Geminid streaks with its bright light. But this year promises to be one of the most spectacular displays in recent memory. Coinciding with a new moon, this year's shower promises to be even more eye-popping than normal. This means no moon will be visible during the shower, making the sky especially dark and black, and creating perfect viewing conditions for the shower.
On the night of Dec. 13, 2012, the Geminid meteor shower will be peaking right around 8p.m. EST, though the best time to watch for them is always around 2a.m. local time, when their radiant point will be passing very nearly overhead, according to Space.com. The higher a shower's radiant, the more meteors it produces all over the sky, says the site.
"With no moon to ruin the show, 2012 presents a most favorable year for watching the grand finale of the meteor showers. Best viewing of the Geminids will probably be from about 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. on December 14," Earthsky has reported.
"Indeed, under normal conditions on the night of maximum activity, with ideal dark-sky conditions, at least 60 to 120 Geminid meteors can be expected to burst across the sky every hour on average (light pollution greatly cuts the numbers of visible meteors down significantly)," said Space.com.
NASA reports that the Geminids are a relatively young meteor shower, with the first sightings occurring in the 1830s with rates of about 20 per hour.Over the decades the rates have increased, regularly spawning between 80 and 120 per hour at its peak on a clear evening.
The Geminid meteor shower is named after the constellation Gemini, which is located in roughly the same point of the night sky where the Geminid meteor shower appears to originate. The bright light show is created by the meteors meeting the Earth's atmosphere as our planet passes through the trail of the comet, and as the comet's orbit moves in line near the Earth.
"Of all the debris streams Earth passes through every year, the Geminids' is by far the most massive," Cooke said. "When we add up the amount of dust in the Geminid stream, it outweighs other streams by factors of 5 to 500."
"The Geminid Meteors are usually the most satisfying of all the annual showers, even surpassing the famous Perseids of August," noted Space.com.
"Studies of past displays show that this shower has a reputation for being rich both in slow, bright, graceful meteors and fireballs as well as faint meteors, with relatively fewer objects of medium brightness. Geminids typically encounter Earth at 22 miles per second (35 kilometers per second), roughly half the speed of a Leonid meteor. Many appear yellowish in hue. Some even appear to travel jagged or divided paths," the site added.
If you'd rather catch the light show in person, NASA recommends getting as far away as possible from city light pollution to observe it from a rural area, and suggests creating as much darkness as possible for ideal viewing conditions. However, even if you can't break away to catch the cosmic event in person, or watch it online tonight or tomorrow, the shower should linger until around Sunday before petering out completely, says MSNBC.com.