As you read this, the planet Earth is about to float through a highway of space debris. As the planet passes through the debris, some of it will enter our atmosphere and burn through the night sky as "shooting stars." This particular shower of shooting stars is known in astronomical circles as the Geminid meteor shower, and Thursday, December 13 and Friday, December 14 are the best times to witness the event (the shower actually begins on December 10, but peaks on these two days). The show will start about mid-evening on both of these nights. For those of you willing to brave the cold of a December night to see the shower, find a dark place (away from the lights of civilization) and simply look up.
The Geminids shower is one of the year's best. Typically, you will see more than 50 meteors an hour. That's almost one each minute! As each meteor falls through our atmosphere, it will travel at about 22 mpg (35 km/h). That's actually pretty slow for a meteor. As it falls, it pushes on the gas in front of it and compresses it...very quickly. This compression causes the gas and the meteor to heat up. The temperature of the meteor can reach as high as 3,000 degrees F 91,650 degrees C). At that temperature, the meteor is so hot that it actually glows. That's why we can see the meteor (or shooting star) as it moves across the sky.
The Geminids are different than other meteor showers in that they seem to have been spawned from a mysterious object called 3200 Phaethon; not from a comet (astronomers have not decided if Phaeton is an asteroid or the nucleus of a burned out comet). Phaeton crosses Earth's orbit and leaves behind the debris trail that creates the Geminids. The meteors are named for the constellation Gemini (The Twins). If you were to trace the meteors flight backwards through the sky, you’d find them streaming from a single point in the sky. This point, called the radiant point, lies close to Gemini’s bright star, Castor.
Try to catch a glimpse of the shower if you can. For more information on watching the Geminids, try this site: Top 10 tips for 2007 Geminid meteor shower.