What a show! This years Geminid meteor shower was fantastic.
I’ve seen all the major meteor showers and the Geminid meteor shower is without doubt the finest annual meteor shower in the Northern Hemisphere. The one factor that keeps many from experiencing this grand show is the weather. Its usually cold unlike its major rival the August Perseids. More importantly this time of year can have unsettled weather with frequent cloudy nights. I’ve missed many a Geminid shower because of that. Not this year.
This year the timing for North America was superb. A waxing moon would be minimal interference. It would set before midnight. By my calculations the Geminid peak would occur near the end of darkness in the central time zone. Maximum activity would happen from midnight to morning for Kansas. North America won’t have this specific moon and peak shower timing for years to come (1).
I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to catch this if at all possible. I planned and prepared for weeks monitoring several possible locations. As the time neared it became clear my observing site would be far western Kansas. Only there could I have some certainty of a clear dark sky. At noon Thursday the 13th I headed out to Monument Rocks.
I’ve been to Monument Rocks a few times but never in December. Driving I-70 across Kansas one is reminded it can be a challenging time of year. Out west past Salina there are gates on the highway exit ramps that are closed when the weather is bad. Like the blizzard that happened early this month shutting down the highway. There were still remnants of that along the road.
Five and a half hours later I arrived at my destination. It was sunset, the winds were still strong but starting to ease a bit. On the way out the gusts were over 50 mph. Fortunately Monument Rocks is a bit lower than the surrounding area. A slight bowl that would help reduce the wind. Temperature was dropping fast without the sun. The sky was crystal clear.
After scouting around the rocks I decided to be on the north west corner of the formations. I waited for darkness to arrive, the waxing moon to get lower. The soft moonlight illuminated the rocks, I’d never seen this pretty sight before. As the stars came out I could better judge where I wanted to be so I could capture a few pictures. Jeff and Noah arrived as I was finalizing my spot.
It was still early, still not fully dark, but the meteors were already falling. Standing there Jeff and I caught a fantastic Geminid earth grazer than took five seconds or so to streak across the sky. Show time! Time to get the chairs and sleeping bags ready. The temperature was down to 18° F, I was dressed in many layers. I even brought chemical hand warmers.
When its this cold you observe for awhile then take a break in the car to warm up. As the radiant for the Geminid meteor shower got higher and higher the meteors started raining from the sky. The meteor rate was intense for awhile, this is my official count:
|Time Range (CST)||Geminids (GEM)||Sporadics (SPO)|
Thats a total of 319 Geminids recorded over 3 1/3 hours (199 minutes) observing time. Its entirely possible I under counted the Geminids in the time frame from 1am to 3am. There were moments with many meteors streaking across the sky simultaneously. And note I probably saw a hundred meteors during my breaks in the car but those were not counted (!).
While I intended to go until the end of darkness the cold, wind and physical wear got to me by 5:40am. I didn’t do my last planned 30 minute session. The meteor rate was down to less than 70 per hour by my estimate. Crazy to say that is low but it certainly looked and felt like activity had dropped significantly from our amazing numbers earlier. Had it been even 30° I would have pushed on but the temperature was around 14° F and still a bit of wind. I was done, what a night it had been.
Peak Geminids was an incredible sight. The only time I’ve ever seen more meteors was the 1998 Leonids (year of the fireballs, unbelievable display words hardly do justice).
1. The particular circumstance where the Geminid shower peak will occur near end of darkness for the CST zone and the moon will be of little interference will not happen again for years. Here is a peek at future dates, approx peak time and moon conditions:
|Year||Peak Time (CST)||Moon Condition / Age||General Outlook|
|2019||12:30||Nearly full/17 days||Terrible|
|2021||01:00||Waxing crescent/10 days||Poor|
|2022||07:00||Waning crescent/20 days||Terrible|
|2023||13:00||Near new /1day||Excellent|
|2024||19:30||Almost full/13 days||Terrible|
|2025||01:30||Waning crescent/24 days||Ok|
|2026||07:30||Waxing crescent/5 days||BINGO – EXCELLENT|