As some of you may know, we are in the midst of the Geminid meteor shower. Right now, Earth is passing through a cloud of dust and debris left by 3200 Phaethon, a strange object that is part asteroid and part comet.
Its composition is mostly rock, making it an asteroid. However, its orbit is more like a comet. At its farthest point from the sun, it travels past the orbit of Mars. At its closest point, it passes very close to the sun – well within the orbit of Mercury.
The sun’s heat releases a large quantity of dust from Phaethon. Earth passes right through that cloud of debris. As the particles enter the atmosphere, they heat the air around themselves and leave the characteristic streaks we call meteors or “shooting stars.”
Earth takes about 10 days to pass through the cloud, but we are passing through the thickest part of it right now.
The Perseid shower in August has the reputation for being the best shower of the year. However, that reputation is mostly a matter of convenience. August is warmer and generally clearer than December.
The Geminids are by far a better shower if we can arrange a rare, late-autumn night without clouds. For one thing, the nights are longer in December. More significantly, the Geminid cloud contains a higher density of meteor-making detritus than the pathetic Perseids.
If it happens to be clear tonight, travel away from the city lights to a dark, rural location. Dress warmly, and prepare to observe all night. Look southeast if you can but, in any case, look in the direction least light-polluted by distant towns and cities. Meteors will appear over the entire sky.
Most nights, the shower peaks between 2 and 3 a.m. Generally speaking, you’ll see the most meteors after local midnight as Earth turns into the direction of its orbit, and more meteor-causing particles are crashing into Earth’s atmosphere at higher velocities. From a dark sky, you may see as many as 120 meteors per hour during the peak hours.
Recent events remind me that today is a sad anniversary of sorts. On Dec. 14, 2012, a disturbed person whose name does not deserve to be repeated here entered Sandy Hook Elementary and killed 20 students and six of the adults who served them.
I’ve done astronomical programs for so many school classes and other groups that long ago I lost count. When I heard the news about Sandy Hook, I had to pull my car off to the side of the road. Ten thousand first-grade faces flashed before my eyes.
Perhaps those kids will live another 90 years and inspire the lives of others. Or perhaps, as the events at Sandy Hook prove, their lives will be but a shimmering instant in a cosmos old beyond measure.
The best holiday gift that we can provide is not a new PlayStation or Xbox. It is simply to be there. We must provide our children with a safe place of shelter. We must keep them warm and feed them. But after that is done, we must feed their souls with love and knowledge. Hunger and deprivation will break their bodies. Loneliness and ignorance will break their spirits.
Do something special with a child this holiday season. Ice skate. Walk around the neighborhood and sing carols. Launch a balloon. Show them the stars. Dance with joy that you and they are still on the planet.
In our case at Perkins, we must, all of us, dedicate ourselves to showing those children the wonder and majesty of the universe they live in and are integrally a part of. It is our duty – and as I hope you all will come to understand if you don’t already – our greatest joy.
Merry Christmas. Happy holidays. Joyous Kwanzaa. Shalom. Allahu Akbar. Om. May your winter-solstice celebration be filled with peace and joy, and may it be spent with children.
We are all traveling through space on a tiny spacecraft, an island of beauty, a speck of rock hurtling through a dark and dangerous void. We are all members of the same race, the human race. Let’s start acting like it.
Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.