Up to 120 shooting stars an hour to blaze in the sky as Geminids meteor shower peaks

Rob Waugh
Contributor
.The strongest meteor shower of the year – the Geminids – are set to light up the sky on the night of December 13 (Getty)

Showers of up to 120 shooting stars an hour could be visible in the skies over Britain this week as an annual meteor shower peaks.

The Geminids meteor shower will see multi-coloured shooting stars burning up in our atmosphere on Thursday 13th and Friday 14th.

The Met Office says, ‘The best time to view the Geminids is between sunset, local time and before sunrise.

‘Star gazers will be looking for clear, cloudless skies to have the best possible chance of catching a glimpse of the meteor shower. Ideally a location away from light pollution will be of benefit.’

Meteor showers occur when the Earth ploughs through clouds of cometary dust.

The tiny particles, some no bigger than a grain of sand, burn up brightly as they enter the atmosphere.

The Geminids are unusual in that they are not shed by a classic icy comet but a body that shares characteristics of both comets and asteroids.

Known as 3200 Phaethon, the three-mile-wide object was discovered in 1983 by two British scientists examining Nasa satellite images and initially classified as an asteroid.

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But it has an eccentric orbit that looks more like that of a comet than an asteroid and brings it well inside the orbit of Mercury, the closest planet to the Sun, every 1.4 years.

Nasa describes it as a “rock comet”. Traditionally asteroids are made of rock, and comets mostly of ice.

The Geminid meteor shower itself was first noted in the 1860s.

Over time it has become more intense, with up to 20 comets per hour reported in the 1920s, rising to 50 in the 1930s, 60 in the 1940s and 80 in the 1970s.

Travelling at some 22 miles per second, the meteors burn up about 24 miles above the Earth.

Another unusual feature of the Geminids is that they can shine in different colours. Mostly glowing white, they may also appear yellow, blue, green or red.