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Here's How and When to See the Geminid Meteor Shower Over Arizona

A time-lapse photo of the Geminid meteor shower in 2017.
A time-lapse photo of the Geminid meteor shower in 2017. Paul Balfe/CC BY 2.0/Flickr
Don’t panic, but our planet is about to be bombarded by the biggest meteor shower of the year. The annual Geminid meteor shower, which causes a prolific amount of shooting stars to rocket through our atmosphere, will be happening every night from now until late December.

The good news is you’ll be able to see it from almost anywhere in the Valley. The Geminid meteor shower, so named because it appears to emanate from the constellation Gemini, happens every December when the Earth’s orbit passes through an asteroid’s debris field.

Brian Skiff, an astronomer with Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, says the Geminids are also considered to be the “most reliable” because it offers more shooting stars than other meteor showers and its shooting stars tend to take longer to burn.

“That’s the one thing I can tell you about the Geminids,” he says. “From experience, the [meteors] leave a longer train behind them, so it’s not just a quick streak of light. There’s a trail behind each meteor that lasts for a second or two.”

At its peak, which happens this year on Monday, December 13, into early Tuesday, December 14, upward of 50 meteors per hour will streak across the night sky. It makes for an extraordinary sight each year.

If you’d like to check out all the astronomical action, here’s everything you’ll need to know about where the best times to see some shooting stars. So kick back in your front or back yard, check out some shooting stars, and don’t forget to make a wish.

When Do the Geminid Meteor Showers Take Place?

In 2021, the Geminids happen nightly through late December. They’ll peak on the evening of Monday, December 13, into the morning of Tuesday, December 14, with upward of 50 meteors per hour will streak through the sky.

So What’s Causing All These Meteors?

Like all meteor showers, the Geminids are caused by our planet’s orbit traveling through the debris trails from comets, asteroids, and other stellar objects. (In other words, the Earth colliding with crap they’ve left behind.) In this case, its rocks and minerals from 3200 Phaethon, a near-Earth asteroid orbiting the sun. In mid-December, our planet crosses its orbital path, plowing through its remnants like a car driving through a cloud of bugs.

Skiff says the largely mineral-based composition of the Geminid meteors is why they tend to burn a little longer in the atmosphere than with other showers.

"Most meteors are made from the leftover ice and rocks of comets and tend to melt much more quickly in the atmosphere," he says. "Since [3200 Phaeton] is more rocky, its remnants take longer to burn."

When's the Best Time to Watch the Geminids

The constellation Gemini, which is the radiant (or starting point) for the meteor shower, rises in the northwestern sky at 9 p.m. As we mentioned, the peak of this year’s Gemini showers happens on Monday night beginning at 11 p.m. If you can stay up, your best bet is between midnight and 3 a.m. on Tuesday.

Where Should You Look?

Meteors will be visible across the sky, though most will appear to emanate near Gemini. From 11 p.m. until 2 a.m., they’ll be more toward the horizon, including some possible slower-moving and longer-lasting “Earth-grazer” meteors that bounce off the atmosphere. As Gemini rises, so will the meteors, which will be higher in the sky as the night progresses. You don’t have to stare directly at the constellation to see meteors, however, but you should generally look toward the west-northwest.

What Will the Viewing Conditions Be Like?

There will be some light clouds on Monday, but the current forecast for Monday calls for clear skies. At the moment, the moon is in its waxing gibbous phase. It will be located just above the horizon right before the peak of the showers but should set around 1 a.m., leaving the sky dark enough for watching meteors.

Where Are the Best Locations for Viewing?

Anywhere with wide-open skies that’s as dark as possible and offers little in the way of light pollution. Basically, that means driving away from the city lights to the outskirts of the Valley and places like Buckeye, Anthem, Queen Creek, or Carefree. If you’re considering driving out to the boonies to get a better view, please be sure to have a fully charged cellphone and enough gas to get there and back.

Will You Need a Telescope or Binoculars?

No. Meteors will be visible to the naked eye.
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Benjamin Leatherman is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. He covers local nightlife, music, culture, geekery, and fringe pursuits.