Was Chicken Little Right?


Last updated 2/15/2024 at 11:18am

Wait until after midnight to have the best chance of seeing some meteors.

If you viewed the sky last week and you may have thought that Chicken Little's declaration that the sky is falling is correct. Alas, it's not. What you saw was just the annual Geminid meteor shower that reached its peak this year on the night of Dec. 13 and the morning of Dec. 14.

Many folks seem to know about the Perseid meteor shower of mid-August, but the wintertime cold has kept many from enjoying the Geminids. That's too bad since I think this is the year's most dramatic meteor shower.

It occurs because the Earth orbits the sun and, every year around this time, it encounters a swarm of dusty particles scattered around the orbit of the asteroid Phaethon. When we on Earth slam into this debris, we see the particles fall into the upper atmosphere and burn up. You may know these as falling stars or shooting stars.

Meteor showers are great fun to watch, but many misconceptions exist, so let me try to answer some common questions.

Question: How many meteorites will I see?

Answer: None. What you will see will be meteors. When a particle is out in space, we know it as a "meteoroid." When it falls into the Earth's atmosphere and burns up, we call it a "meteor." Only if it's a large enough rock to survive its plunge through the air and crash to the ground is it called a "meteorite."

Question:Why couldn't I see anything last December when I stepped outside for a few minutes to check the sky?

Answer: Your eyes need at least half an hour to adjust to the darkness before you can expect to see most meteors, and you must spend more than a few minutes keeping watch.

Question: I read that "the sky would light up with meteors," so why could I only see a few?

Answer:Don't be taken in when the media (print, electronic and especially social media) blow celestial phenomena out of proportion. The Geminids can produce around 120 meteors per hour under ideal circumstances (that's perhaps two per minute on average). The key word here is "average" over the entire night. It also depends on how dark your sky is, how dark adapted your eyes are and where in the heavens you look.

Question: OK, so where should I look?

Answer: Up. No, I'm not being flip, that's the answer. Folks who gaze only toward Gemini, for example – the point in the sky from which these meteors appear to radiate – see very few. Those who lie back on a lawn chair and take in the entire sky will see the most.

Question: Why do astronomers always suggest viewing after midnight?

Answer: Because that's our best chance to see meteors. In the evening hours, we're looking into space out the planet's "back window." By dawn, however, the Earth has rotated enough that we're peering in the direction we're moving. And much like driving through a rain or snowstorm, it's always the front window that gets pelted the most.

Now, bundle up and get out there in the cold to enjoy the year's best meteor shower. I know you'll enjoy the show!

Visit Dennis Mammana at dennismammana.com.