Today’s Google Doodle takes its viewers on a short, astronomical journey, showing how the combination of a distant space rock, the Sun, and Earth’s atmosphere manage to bring us an incredible natural light show.
Right now, the Earth is traveling through a trail of dust and rubble sloughed off by a strange space rock called 3200 Phaethon, which means it’s time for this year’s Geminid meteor shower. The Geminids tend to be the strongest, brightest meteor shower of the year, but according to the American Meteor Society, they often lose the meteor shower popularity contest. Stargazers in the Northern Hemisphere tend to prefer to stay up and watch the Perseids meteor shower in August’s warmer weather. In fact, the Perseids were the first meteor showers to be celebrated by a Google Doodle in 2009 and again in 2014. But finally, it’s the Geminids’ turn in the search spotlight.
The meteor shower will be at its best late Thursday night into early Friday morning. But unless the weather is clear and the lights are low, it might be hard to catch the show.
Phaethon is what NASA calls “a weird, rocky object.” It might be a near-Earth asteroid or maybe an extinct comet. Either way, there’s a trail of grit and rocky materials in its wake that burns up in Earth’s atmosphere, which is what we see as the yearly Geminid meteor shower.
Excitingly, the Geminids aren’t alone. Also in the night sky right now is comet 46p/Wirtanen, a green blur that will be at its brightest on December 16th.
“Look towards the east with a small pair of binoculars or a telescope to see the green, fuzzy comet. It will be near the constellation Orion, or the saucepan,” Brad Tucker, an astronomer at the Australian National University said, adding that this is the last chance to see what’s known as the “Christmas comet” for a few years. “This comet orbits the Sun roughly once every five years.”
How to watch tonight
The Geminids last for days, but the best time to see them is on Thursday night. Once the Moon sets by around 10:30PM local time, people can look up to see meteoroids streaking through the Earth’s atmosphere at 78,000 miles per hour, according to a NASA blog post. “That may sound fast, but it is actually somewhat slow compared to other meteor showers,” NASA says. That means the bright blue, white, green, or red arcs they trace through the sky linger long enough for people on the ground to spot.
What you’ll see will depend on the light pollution in your area. Under ideal conditions, you could see 120 shooting stars an hour at the shower’s peak according to London’s Natural History Museum. NASA recommends giving your eyes about 30 minutes to adjust, and don’t ruin your night vision by peeking at flashlights or cellphone screens. “You go out after the moon sets, you find yourself a nice dark place, you lay on your back, and you look straight up taking in as much sky as you can,” Bill Cooke, lead for NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office, says in a Facebook live video. Dress warmly, Cooke says, and “that’s all you’ve got to do to see meteors.”
Still, people in city centers won’t see anything at all, no matter how much time they give their eyes to adjust. Even further out in the suburbs, people probably won’t see more than 40 per hour, provided the clouds are sparse and lights are dim, NASA says. “Even though the Geminids are rich in beautiful green fireballs,” NASA says, “the lights of New York, San Francisco, or Atlanta will blot even them out.”
There are a few ways to still catch the meteor shower if you live amid the city lights. CNET reports that Slooh Observatory will be streaming the shower. And The Washington Post discovered a live stream that lets you listen to the ping of radio waves reflected back to Earth by the clouds of ionized gases in the meteors’ wakes.