Supermoon, Geminids battle for night sky supremacy

A bright full moon will make it harder to see an annual meteor shower, but the best and the brightest fireballs will still put on quite a show.

Eric Mack Contributing Editor
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Eric Mack
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This composite image shows over 100 Geminid meteors captured by NASA in the Alabama sky.

NASA/MSFC/Danielle Moser, NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office

The night sky is going to be lit up this week with the final supermoon of 2016 competing for your evening attention with the fireball-producing Geminid meteor shower.

The Geminids usually compete with August's Perseids for the title of shower that produces the most meteors, but this year a bright supermoon for the third month in the row will greatly reduce the number that can be viewed.

While the International Meteor Organization says the perigee moon will wash out at least 75 percent of the "shooting stars," that only means those that are still visible will be the best and brightest of the bunch. In fact, bright and plentiful Geminid fireballs should be visible before and after the peak of the shower Tuesday night.

The Geminids are also one of the rare showers you can see without having to stay up into the wee morning hours -- the show gets started as early as 10 p.m. and goes all night.

"These early Geminids are special as the geometry at this time of night only allows them to skim the top of the atmosphere," explains Robert Lunsford of the American Meteor Society. "Therefore these meteors will last longer and will produce longer streaks in the sky... the number of meteors seen at this time will be low, but they will be impressive nonetheless."

See 2016 Perseids sizzle in spectacular shooting-star show

See all photos

The Geminids occur every December when Earth passes through the rocky debris stream accompanying the asteroid (or perhaps defunct comet) 3200 Phaethon. All that rocky material causes the meteors to burn up slower, brighter and sometimes with a dash of yellow, blue or red color across the sky.

"The Geminids are several centuries old," explained Bill Cooke from NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office in a Reddit "Ask Me Anything" session Monday. "Some scientists think the shower may be caused by debris from a collision between Phaethon and another asteroid."

The presence of both a fantastic moon that will appear a little larger and brighter than usual, and some sizzling fireballs may require a more strategic approach to viewing than normal.

Might be best to get all your supermoon swooning and photos done first when the satellite is low in the sky and at its most spectacular. Then do your best to ignore the moon as the Geminid show heats up to allow your pupils to dilate a little more and boost your meteor-spotting prowess.

If clouds or city lights spoil your view instead, you can check out live broadcasts from NASA starting at 6 p.m. PT on Tuesday or the Slooh online observatory at 5 p.m.