When it comes to shooting star spotting, the highlight of the calendar is the Geminid Meteor shower with up to 120 multi-coloured shooting stars per minute. Even better, depending on where you are in Australia, you can start viewing the Geminids from as early as 9 pm on Friday the 14th or stay up late and keep viewing it through to the 15th.
Image courtesy of Jason Jenkins @ Flickr
About the Geminids
Most meteor showers are caused by the Earth passing through the dust trails of comets, but the Geminids are not caused by a comet's trail, but instead, it is believed that they are the result of debris left behind by an asteroid named 3200 Phaethon. Though some people refer to it as a rock comet, not because it travels with the appropriate soundtrack, but because it orbits around the sun like a comet but it is made of rock instead of ice.
Image of the path of 3200 Phaethon courtesy of Tomruen @ Wikimedia Commons
Shooting stars are actually just nothing more than specks of dust which burn brightly as they hit the Earth's atmosphere at tremendous speed. Should you see a bright fireball, then it will be a meteor as large as a grain of sand.
The colourful nature of the shooting stars comes from the different elements in the meteorites. Iron will glow yellow, silicon red and green comes from copper.
Watching the meteor shower
The Geminds is a bit different from other meteor showers in other ways as well, which are normally best seen in the hours just before dawn. Instead, this meteor storm becomes visible around 9 or 10 pm and peaks not long after midnight. Though at the peak, you will find that the moon sets around or after midnight, meaning you might not get a great view until then.
Shooting stars are typically not that bright, so to see them you want to get away from urban light pollution and go somewhere such as a remote bushland area, mountaintop or, my favourite for summer, a beach. So the best option is to sit or even lie down and look at the sky. It takes about 20 minutes for your eyes to fully adjust to the darkness and any light, such as a campfire, phone screen or smartwatch, can ruin your night vision.
Meteor showers are named after their radiant point, which for the Geminds is the constellation Gemini. Locating the radiant point can be useful, especially earlier in the evening when it is below the horizon because most of the shooting stars will be in that general direction. However, at the peak time, shooting stars can appear anywhere in the sky radiating out in all directions from the radiant point. So you can just look towards the sky.
Image the constellation Gemini courtesy of Till Credner @ Wikimedia
The easiest way to locate Gemini is to use a night sky app on your phone or tablet. I use Sky Map, but there are many others. All you do is point your phone at the sky and it tells you what you are seeing. The main problem is, of course, the screen's light will destroy your night vision.
Viewing details around Australia
The Geminids run from December 7 to 17 with the peak on the evening of Friday 14 and Saturday 15. Most meteor peaks last for several days around this, but the times and will stay roughly the same, but you might want to check the different moonset times.
Photograph courtesy of Amir shahcheraghian @ Wikimedia
In Sydney and Melbourne , viewing on the night of the 14th starts at about 11 pm. Though I think it would be better to wait until later when the radiant point is higher in the sky and the moon sets at 1 am.
In Brisbane, the Geminds can be viewed from about 9 pm in the sky to the North East, though the moon doesn't set until 11:37 pm and the peak viewing time is around 1 am when they will be visible across the whole sky.
In Adelaide , you need to wait until nearly midnight for viewing the meteor shower and you should get the best view from 1:15 am after the moon sets.
Over in Perth you can watch the meteor shower from 10 pm until dawn, but of course after the moon sets at 12: 15 will be better,
Capturing shooting stars with through your camera lens
Night sky photography is always a fun activity, and the ultimate challenge is capturing a meteor shower. The reason why it is a challenge is because shootings stars are faint and move very quickly, which means you need a combination of the right equipment, appropriate settings and a great deal of luck.
To start, you need a decent camera such as DSLR or mirrorless camera. Lens speed matters here, and normally the fastest setting on most lenses is f/3.5, with the smaller the number the faster the lens. This will work, but if you have a f/2.5 or f/2 lens, it will be better.
Photograph courtesy of Amir shahcheraghian @ Wikimedia
Set up your camera on a tripod pointing at the sky. Shooting stars can appear anywhere at any time, so just point your camera at the sky. You won't know when or where the shooting stars will come and they move too fast to just click the camera button when you see one, so instead you have to set up your camera for continual shooting and sort through the photos later to determine if you were lucky or not. With the Geminids, there are up to 120 shooting stars a minute, so often photographs taken of this meteor shower will often capture more than one in a single frame.
The main thing is to use the right exposure timing. Typically this is going to be around 10 to 25 seconds, with the longer exposure capturing more of the star field. But if the exposure is too long, then the background stars will make it hard to see the shooting star.
This meteor shower is going to be one of the best ones of the year, so I highly recommend getting out over this weekend to enjoy this once a year event. Remember, if you are too tired after work on the Friday, you can also view it on the Saturday night as well as the peak lasts several days.