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Geminids Gem of a Meteor Shower on Tap This Weekend


Stashed in: The Universe

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The Geminids were first really noticed back in 1862, when fewer than 20 shooting stars an hour were recorded.

But since then they have skyrocketed to well over 100 a night in some years, particularly when the skies were moonless at peak times.

What is the reason for the uptick? Astronomers believe that Earth is plowing deeper every year into an ancient stream of debris left behind by a mysterious three-mile-wide (five kilometers) comet or asteroid orbiting in the inner solar system.

The shooting stars, which are really sand-size meteors, all appear to be chips off of a bizarre asteroid-like object, called 3200 Phaethon. Discovered in 1983 by a NASA satellite, astronomers quickly matched Phaethon's year and orbit precisely with the Geminids, making it a prime candidate for the source of the meteors.

But unlike other meteor showers that astronomers know derive from material shed from icy comets melting as they pass close to the sun, the true nature of the Geminids' parent object has left scientists baffled. It may be a curiously icy asteroid instead. (For a fun glance at the origins of meteor shower science, look here.)

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