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How to watch the Geminids; the best meteor shower of the year

Shooting star fans will want to head outside in December, as the best chance for meteor-spotting also brings a special guest this year.

For sky watchers, 2017 goes out with a bang and bright lights, even if most of them fade fast as they sizzle above us. I'm referring to the arrival of the annual Geminid meteor shower, which is a big deal this year for a number of reasons.

First, they won't be washed out by the moon like the other big show of "shooting stars" was this year.

"With August's Perseids obscured by bright moonlight, the Geminids will be the best shower this year," said Bill Cooke with NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office in a release. "The thin, waning crescent Moon won't spoil the show."  

Last year, the Geminids had to compete with a pesky supermoon.

The Geminids are one of those rare showers that produce visible meteors throughout the night, but the peak of activity will be the evening of Dec. 13 into the early morning hours of Dec. 14. If you can stay up late, the hours between midnight and 4 a.m. local time offer the potential to see the most meteors, according to NASA.

If you can get yourself to a rural location with minimal light pollution, viewers with cloudless skies in mid-northern latitudes can expect to see perhaps 100 or more meteors between 1 a.m. to 2 a.m., according to the American Meteor Society.

The Geminids come with an added bonus this year in the form of the source of the cosmic dust and debris: an unusual rocky object called 3200 Phaethon

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An asteroid-like object called 3200 Phaethon is the source of the debris that becomes Geminids.

B. E. Schmidt and S. C. Radcliffe/UCLA/NASA

"Phaethon's nature is debated," explains Cooke. "It's either a near-Earth asteroid or an extinct comet, sometimes called a rock comet." 

Whatever it is, the cloud of debris it leaves behind on its occasional swings through the inner solar system is what causes the Geminid meteor shower when Earth passes through the cloud each December. On Dec. 16, the rock comet is going to make its nearest pass by Earth since being discovered in 1983, giving astronomers another chance for a close look and perhaps figuring out exactly what it is.   

While the close pass will likely create predictable talk of an apocalyptic collision on the corners of the internet dedicated to such things, rest assured that it will safely remain over 6 million miles away from us. 

The bits of rock and dust 3200 Phaethon has left behind will be much closer of course, and it's their demise as they collide with our atmosphere that you'll be watching for. To catch the Geminids, there's no need to focus on a certain part of the sky. Simply find dark, clear skies, give your eyes time to adjust and then lie back and look straight up. 

Relax your eyes and soon enough you'll catch bright, relatively slow-moving streaks streaming their way across the sky. 

If the weather doesn't cooperate on the night of Dec. 13, don't worry. The Geminids aren't a one night affair and you might be able to catch them for much of December, even though the count will probably be lower most other nights.

You can also see what the fuss is about from the warmth of the great indoors via NASA's Ustream feed on Dec. 13, as well as the Virtual Telescope Project and Slooh's live feed.

Finally, if you happen to capture any great shots of the geminids, let me know via Twitter @EricCMack -- we're always looking for shooting stars to feature in upcoming galleries.

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