December brings us almost to the end of the football season and the end of the regular season for meteor showers as well. Let’s hope the Panthers go 16-0, and that we are undefeated in observing the Geminid meteor shower. That will hopefully take the Panthers to the Super Bowl and us to the last big shower of the season, the Quadrantids, which will rain down on us the evening of the last regular Panthers game: Jan. 3.
This month’s shower will be a good one, with up to 120 shooting stars per hour. The peak is predicted to be about noon Dec. 14, but we should be able to see about half that rate the nights of Dec. 13 and 14. A thin, waxing crescent moon will not cause any problems.
Meteor showers are named for the constellation from which they appear to radiate, so this month’s event streams from the direction of the constellation Gemini. The Quadrantids, also 120 shooting stars per hour, emerge from the direction of a now extinct constellation. (And why is that? Doesn’t the new owner of that part of the sky, the constellation Bootes, deserve the honor?)
Gemini, the “twins,” is a sort of special constellation for me – it is the astrological “sign” for my children, Ashton and Celeste. And, yes, embarrassingly enough for an astronomer, my kids are twins.
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The reason for the chagrin with that coincidence is that we astronomers know that astrology is a bunch of nonsense. I demonstrate this every year, having my students try to self-identify their signs from a list of supposedly standard descriptors of the 12 astrological personality types. It is a statistical wash, with the expected one out of 12 guesses turning out to be correct.
We should all have some fun watching the stream of Geminids. And, let’s hope the Panthers are 16-0 on the evening of the …. er … Bootids?
Daniel B. Caton is a physics and astronomy professor and director of observatories at Appalachian State University. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. More on this month's column: www.upintheair.info.