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Geminids Promise A Light Show In The Night Sky


This is WEEKEND EDITION NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Watching a meteor shower can be beautiful if you stay up long enough to watch. If you're in a North America, you won't have to wait until the wee hours to see the Geminid meteor shower this weekend.

Jackie Faherty is an astronomer at both the Carnegie Institution for Science and the American Museum of Natural History. She joins us from New York. Thanks much for being with us.

JACKIE FAHERTY: You're welcome.

SIMON: What will we see if we look up?

FAHERTY: So the meteor showers are really nature's natural fireworks display. If you walk outside over the weekend and look up - and you don't even have to be out there that late - what you get to see is a spectacular streaking of light that's coming radially in a direction from the constellation Gemini.

SIMON: And what parts of the country will be able to see it better than some others?

FAHERTY: So the key to knowing what is going to have the best view is to know where the constellation Gemini is. So for the most of continental U.S. it's very similar because we're all at a similar latitude. After about 9 o'clock it should get good - oh, sorry, 9 p.m. local time. And it should peak around 2 a.m. The unfortunate part is that the moon - which is a third-quarter moon - is rising after midnight. And while we love the moon as astronomers, it's a bit of a pain when you want to see things streaking across your sky.

SIMON: And for those of you who've seen a lot of meteor showers, what's going to make this one distinctive?

FAHERTY: A lot of meteor showers - the majority of meteor showers - their origin is because we're - the earth is actually passing through a debris trail and crossing the orbit of a comet. In the case of the Geminids, we're not actually passing a comet. We're passing what we think is an asteroid. It's called 3200 Phaethon. This is a particularly brighter meteor shower, so - also, there's a bit more of them in this meteor shower. So you can hope to walk outside and see maybe one to two a minute.

SIMON: And, you know, I have to ask this time of year, is there any chance that the meteor shower will hit Santa Claus's sleigh?

FAHERTY: There's always a chance. And as I tell my nephews and my niece - watch out, Santa.

SIMON: (Laughter).

FAHERTY: The Geminids are coming your way.

SIMON: Jackie Faherty is an astronomer at both the Carnegie Institution for Science and the American Museum of Natural History. Thanks so much for being with us.

FAHERTY: You're welcome.

SIMON: Jackie Faherty had what we sometimes call interviewee's remorse after our talk and worried listeners might think a meteor shower could turn Santa's sleigh into a fireball. Super wrong - that's a quote Dr. Faherty wrote us. Meteor pieces usually burn up 50 miles above the earth where reindeer don't fly, unless they're on the International Space Station. Santa flies much lower and is therefore, quote, "100 percent safe from any impacts." Double safe, Dr. Faherty adds. By December 25, the earth will have moved far from the path of the Geminids. Ho, ho, ho. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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