'Best meteor shower of 2007' hitting its peak

Watch for shooting stars

Posted: Friday, December 14, 2007

With so little snow on the ground, some outdoor enthusiasts are looking low and high for winter activities to take part in, and today would be a good day to look straight up.

"The best meteor shower of 2007 will be peaking today," said Dan Spencer, lead flight director of the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska in Kenai.

The Geminid meteor shower began Dec. 7 and runs through Tuesday, but the best two days for viewing the streaking celestial objects were Thursday and today, due in part to the nearly new phase of the moon.

"This year presents a good viewing opportunity because the meteors will be falling against a dark, moonless night, so they should seem brighter and more contrasting in the night sky since they are not competing with a lit-up moon," Spencer said.

The last time the Geminid meteor shower occurred during, or near, a new moon phase was in 1996, and Spencer said roughly 110 meteors an hour could be observed, "but around 80 an hour is more usual and what is predicted."

Andy Veh, an assistant professor of physics and mathematics at Kenai Peninsula College, said the Geminid meteor shower is unique for another reason.

"It's the only major meteor shower that is associated with an asteroid, rather than a comet," he said.

Veh explained most meteors occur from a process that begins when a comet flies close to the sun. Intense heat from the fiery giant blasts the comet, causing debris and dust particles to come off. When one of these particles travelling 100,000 miles per hour eventually collides and burns off in Earth's atmosphere, the result is a bright, sometimes fiery, streak of light.

The Geminids, by contrast, come from a near-Earth asteroid, which Veh said is called Phaethon, but the reason this celestial body is spewing space dust is still a bit of a mystery.

"One possibility is it bumped against another asteroid," he said.

In this theory, it is believed that during the collision, a cloud of dust and rock could have been created which now follows Phaethon through its orbit.

"Another possibility is that it is an asteroid that used to be a comet," Veh said.

In this theory, scientists look at Phaethon's orbit, which is very elliptical, much like most comets. Also, roughly ever year-and-a-half, Phaethon makes its way through the inner solar system where repeated blasts of solar heat could have scoured it down into a nearly extinct skeleton of a comet without a fiery tail. As a result, these same solar blasts may have over the year produced enough space debris to now cause the Geminid meteor shower.

As to the best place to take in today's active sky show, Veh said most locations outside of the Kenai, Soldotna or Sterling area will be ideal to escape the city lights. State parks and rural areas can be options for taking in the shower, so long as they provide a clear view of the night sky without any obstructions from trees.

"Anywhere out in the boonies is good, but I've pulled over about 10 miles outside of Kenai and had perfect conditions," he said.

Veh said more than worrying about being in the perfect place, he is more concerned about having favorable viewing weather. The prediction for today calls for clouds in the morning, but they should clear by the early evening.

Joseph Robertia can be reached at joseph.robertia@peninsulaclarion.com.

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