How to observe the Geminids meteor shower in December 2020

The Geminids meteor shower appears to radiate from beside star Castor in constellation Gemini. This view is looking north from Sydney (and from almost anywhere in Australia) at 1am on Monday December 14 2020. Made with Stellarium.

What are the Geminids?

The Geminids meteor shower occurs in mid-December each year and is one of the most reliable and most spectacular meteor showers visible from the southern hemisphere. The meteors are caused by small particles of rock and dust from the asteroid-comet (3200) Phaethon entering the Earth’s atmosphere. As they vaporise high overhead the particles leave long, bright and sometimes colourful trails across the sky.

As Phaethon orbits the Sun it passes relatively close to the Sun, its surface bakes and crumbles in the sunlight and forms a cloud of dusty particles surrounding the asteroid-comet. These particles are larger than the typical dust from most comets which makes the Geminid meteors particularly bright and long-lasting. The meteors we see each December departed Phaethon long ago and formed a swarm of particles along Phaethon’s orbit. When Earth passes through this swarm each December, like a car driving through rain we see the meteors appear to radiate from the constellation of Gemini.

How can I see the Geminids?

All meteor showers have a broad window covering many days when at least an occasional meteor will be seen, but also a peak period lasting less than a day, and sometimes less than an hour, when maybe hundreds of meteors are seen. The Geminids are visible from about December 4 to 20 and their peak activity lasts several hours.

For the best chance of seeing the Geminids in Australia in 2020 plan ahead for the night of Sunday-Monday, December 13-14. Early on Monday morning, from about midnight to 4am, will be the best viewing time.

No telescope or binoculars are required. Your eyes are the best instruments for viewing a meteor shower.

Find a dark, country site with a clear view of as much of the sky as you can get – the whole sky if possible. If you are stuck in a city or a large town find the darkest (and safest) place you can – a large park, a coastal headland, a suburb on the outskirts. Take a blanket, something warm to wear and maybe something warm to drink – you will be awake for a while yet and even in summer it gets surprisingly cold lying still watching the sky.

Get yourself into position from about 11pm on Sunday, get comfortable, lie back and watch the sky overhead and to the north. After 15-minutes your eyes will have adapted to the darkness. Now, every minute or two (more often if we are lucky) you should see a bright meteor fly silently overhead. Some will leave short trails, some will be faint. But, if everything goes to plan, some meteors will cross the whole sky from north to south, shining brightly and even showing a hint of colour! Once you see the first one you will be hooked for the night.

From a light-polluted city location only the brightest meteors will be visible. From a dark country site the viewing is good all night because the Moon is below the horizon. Even when it rises at about 5am it is just a thin waning crescent (New Moon falls on early Tuesday morning) and will cast little light – but by then early twilight will begin to interfere.

If Sunday night is clouded out try again on Monday night, although the shower will be just past its best.

Update: While a lot of the Australian east coast was clouded out, or raining heavily, the cloud forecast sites noted in the comments below showed some clear areas west of Sydney. I managed to view the meteors from Mt Canobolas (near Orange). It was windy and cool and more light-polluted from Orange than I expected, but I saw about one meteor every couple of minutes or so from about midnight to 3am. Most were bright, some arced across the whole sky, but I didn’t notice any colour.


9 responses to “How to observe the Geminids meteor shower in December 2020

  • I live in Sydney and the weather forecast for this week until next Wednesday (16/-23/12/2020) is rain every day. Since the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn on 21 December is a once in a lifetime event, I would like to see it so can anyone advise a good viewing place outside Sydney. Many thanks in advance.

    • David, You could try heading west. A couple of cloud forecast websites (SkippySky and Cloud Free Night) seem to agree on there being a cloud-free region through central NSW and extending up into Queensland, but who knows with the weather!

  • Woah! Settle down there! Because the radiant of the Geminid shower is at +32 deg declination, it is very unlikely we in the southern hemisphere will see anything like 120 meteors per hour — 20-30 per hour at absolute maximum is a far more realistic count and only for a short period. Expect meteors at random intervals 2-3 minutes apart on average spread over the entire visible sky but their trails point back at the radiant in northern Gemini..

    • Hi Les, I didn’t say 120 per hour, just “every minute or two”. I recall a good show in 2012 when there was a good one every minute for a few hours. Since then its been cloudy or Moon-affected each year for me, and sadly the weather forecasts are not good this time, except in central NSW (maybe!). Let us know how your viewing goes.

  • Thanks for the informative post. My best mate and I are planning to travel from Adelaide to outback South Australia (well 250k from Adelaide) to hopefully get a view of some of the early activity on Friday night. A bit early, but who knows. Hanging out with your best friend with a beer or two looking up at then night sky, talking bs about everything. Can’t do better than that.

    • There might be a few on Friday night. And by the look of the advanced forecasts, if you can stay till Sunday night, you may be in one of the few places without rain forecast. Enjoy the serenity!

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