Viewing tips

As with any celestial display, the darker the better; move away from lights. The beach is better than downtown, astronomer Terry Richardson suggests.No point in facing any one direction; Geminid shooting stars can come from anywhere in the sky.If out at 2 a.m., lie down. The best show will be directly overhead.If shooting digital photographsSet the exposure to 1 minute if possible, but at least 30 seconds, and keep extra batteries at hand.Use as wide an angle as possible, and set the lens wide open.

Think of it as Christmas lights from the heavens — or an omen of Mayan doom.

Watch online

Can’t make it outside? To watch the Geminid shower online:Go to fireballs.ndc.nasa.gov for captured images from the night before.Go to nasa.gov/connect/chat/geminids2012.html to ask questions of experts and watch live telescope and camera feeds from the Marshall Space Flight Center in Hunstville, Ala.

But you might want to step outside tonight to watch the Geminid meteor shower.

Dozens, if not hundreds, of shooting stars per hour will dart across the sky from any direction. Clear skies are expected, and because this year there’s a new moon, the skies will be darker than usual for the annual show.

“People are expecting (to see) a meteor a minute, maybe more,” said Terry Richardson, a College of Charleston astronomy professor.

The show will peak in intensity about 2 a.m. Friday, when the Gemini constellation is directly overhead. But meteorites will begin to blaze at 9 p.m. or earlier, soon enough for the kids to get a look. The shower Friday night into Saturday morning should be just about as good.

Year to year, the Geminid meteorites put on probably the best show of the annual showers, Richardson said. Among other attractions, Geminid shooting stars tend to streak relatively slower.

The Geminid are also a bit of a mystery when it comes to meteor showers, most of which come from rocky bits and pieces spewed by an icy comet passing by. Not the Geminids.

They appear to come from 3200 Phaethon, which NASA Science describes as “a weird rocky object” in space.

Phaethon is likely an asteroid, essentially an orbiting rock that’s bigger than a comet, almost a miniature planet.

Some researchers now propose that Phaethon is what they call a rock comet, an asteroid that passes so close to the sun that its gravel-like debris gets scorched off.

The bottom line: Nobody knows.

“This one appears to be an asteroid,” Richardson said. “But it may be a burned-out comet.”

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