With unusually clear skies, local astronomy buffs are hosting a public viewing party in hopes of catching a glimpse of the celestial fireworks.
The annual Geminid meteor shower is usually an exercise in futility for stargazers in Western Washington, where clear nights in December are about as common as Sasquatch sightings.
Even this year, there’s no guarantee. But the recent respite from rain could tilt the odds in our favor, according to the National Weather Service (NWS).
Wednesday night, when the shower peaks, clouds are predicted to be scarce in the Puget Sound region, said NWS meteorologist Johnny Burg.
“It looks like things will start out OK,” he said. “At 1 a.m. there could be some clouds moving in.”
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There’s also no sign of fog on the horizon, though that situation could change quickly, Burg added.
If the weather cooperates, the sky show could be impressive.
At the shower’s peak, between about 9 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 13, and dawn Thursday, Dec. 14, a shooting star could streak across the sky every minute or two.
The moon won’t rise until 3 a.m., so the night will be dark — as long as you get away from the city.
The Seattle Astronomical Society is hosting a viewing party, open to the public, at Snoqualmie Point Park east of Seattle beginning at 7 p.m. Wednesday. The park is reached via exit 27 off eastbound Interstate 90.
“With August’s Perseids obscured by bright moonlight, the Geminids will be the best shower this year,” said Bill Cooke, of NASA’s Meteorological Office. “The thin, waning crescent moon won’t spoil the show.”
Tuesday night also holds out the possibility of good viewing and clear skies, said David Ingram, the astronomical society’s vice president. “My advice with meteor showers is not to take the peak time as gospel, because a lot of this is an estimate.”
The Geminids are active every December when the Earth passes though a swath of dusty debris trailed by the small, rocky asteroid called 3200 Phaethon.
Only about 3 miles across, the asteroid wasn’t discovered until 1983, even though the annual Geminid shower was recognized as a yearly phenomenon by the mid-1800s.
Because 3200 Phaethon is a rocky body, the bits of dust and debris it leaves in its wake can contain minerals that create colored streaks of light when they plunge into the Earth’s atmosphere and vaporize, Ingram said.
“It’s like fireworks. You can see greens and red and blues, if you’re lucky.”
Ingram urges would-be meteor watchers to get as far away from city lights as possible. But in-city viewing is not out of the question, particularly in areas with fewer lights. Just don’t expect to see as many shooting stars as in an area with truly dark skies.
“If you’re in Seattle or Everett or Tacoma, you may see a few, but you have to set aside the time to look,” Ingram said.
In addition to Snoqualmie Point Park, parking lots and pull-offs along Interstate 90 east of Seattle and communities like North Bend and Snoqualmie can also offer reasonably dark skies, Ingram said.
Local astronomy educator Alice Enevoldsen lists several potential viewing spots in Seattle and further afield at her website: http://www.alicesastroinfo.com/seattle-stargazing/
The shower is named for the constellation Gemini, from which the meteors appear to emanate. Gemini will rise in the east, but shooting stars can be seen in all quadrants of the sky — so most experts advise simply lying flat and looking up.
Wherever you go, Ingram suggests giving your eyes 30 minutes or so to adjust to darkness, and bundling up to stay warm.
“Once your eyes are dark-adapted and you’ve got a good hot drink and you’re wrapped up in your sleeping bag, then set your mind to observing for a good hour or so,” he said.
“A lot of people will see one, two, or three, then decide: That’s enough. I’m out of here,” he acknowledged cheerfully.
In other parts of the country, Geminid-gazing will continue through the week, but don’t bet on it around here. The NWS says our normal, soggy December weather is likely to make a comeback by Thursday night.
By coincidence, 3200 Phaeton is making its closest swing by Earth this week, passing within a mere 6.4 million miles on Dec. 16. It will be visible by telescope in areas where the sky is clear.
For those who would prefer to see the Geminids and 3200 Phaeton without leaving the comfort of their homes, the Virtual Telescope Project will offer live webcasts online at: https://www.virtualtelescope.eu/