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Geminid
A streaking Geminid meteor makes an impression in an all-sky photo captured in 2011. (Credit: NASA)

This year’s Geminid meteor shower is reaching its peak, and Seattle’s weather just might cooperate.

Tonight’s forecast calls for partly cloudy skies and a low chance of precipitation, which is unusual for a Seattle holiday season.

That adds to the allure for this year’s Geminid display, which is expected to be out of the ordinary.

“With August’s Perseids obscured by bright moonlight, the Geminids will be the best shower this year,” Bill Cooke, who leads NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office at Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, said in a news release. “The thin, waning crescent moon won’t spoil the show.”

Under optimal viewing conditions, observers could spot a meteor per minute tonight. Your mileage may vary, depending on how far away you’re able to get from city lights.

“Good rates will be seen between 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 13 and dawn local time the morning of Dec. 14, with the most meteors visible from midnight to 4 a.m. on Dec. 14, when the radiant is highest in the sky,” Cooke said.

The Geminid shower occurs every December when Earth plows through a ring of cosmic dust and grit left behind by a weird celestial object called Phaeton. “Phaethon’s nature is debated,” Cooke said. “It’s either a near-Earth asteroid or an extinct comet, sometimes called a rock comet.”

Flecks of grit burn up in the high reaches of Earth’s atmosphere, leaving ionized trails. Those trails appear to emanate from a spot in the constellation Gemini, which gives the meteor shower its name.

A couple of years ago, we put together a list of top five places for Seattle meteor-watchers, and although the occasion for the original list was the Perseids, the lineup works just as well for the Geminids.

Tonight the Seattle Astronomical Society is planning a “Geminid Meteor Shower Watch” at Snoqualmie Point Park, just off Interstate 90 at Exit 27 near North Bend, from 7 p.m. to 4 a.m. PT. Local astronomers will be on hand to help skywatchers maximize their meteor-viewing experience. If history is any guide, parking will be a challenge.

Geminid meteors appear to diverge from a point in the constellation Gemini, as shown here. Don’t expect to see several meteors at once: This chart is meant only to show the meteors diverging from the radiant point. (Credit: Gregg Dinderman / Sky & Telescope)

Here are a few additional viewing tips:

  • Bring a lounge chair, blanket or sleeping bag and find a comfortable position for looking up into the night sky. Geminids seem to radiate from Gemini, but they can appear anywhere in the heavens.
  • Give your eyes at least 15 minutes to adjust to the dark, and don’t expect to see fireworks. Don’t gaze into the glare of your smartphone if you can help it. Bring a flashlight so you can walk safely to your viewing spot, but be mindful of others.
  • Consider taking along snacks and a thermos of coffee or some other energizing beverage to keep you alert during the pre-dawn hours.

If the forecast turns cloudy, you can still get a taste of the Geminid goodies by tuning in to NASA Marshall’s Ustream channel starting at sunset, or by checking out the Slooh virtual observatory’s webcast starting at 6 p.m. PT.

This report was originally published at 4:58 p.m. PT Dec. 8 and has been updated for the peak night of Dec. 13-14.

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