It's one of the year's most impressive natural light shows, but just like the Perseids back in August, tonight's Geminid meteor shower will be competing with the gleam of a nearly full moon. Nevertheless, experts say the Geminids should still put on an impressive show (the Geminid shower is notorious for uncommonly bright meteors like the one up top).
Back in August, we gave you a how-to guide for viewing the Perseids. Here it is again, updated for tonight's Geminid display.
Avoid light like the plague
We're talking all kinds of light. City lights, street lights, house lights, flashlights, any lights. You've already got the moon giving off tons of it, so don't blow it by checking your indiglo watch out of habit and for god's sake don't look at your phone.
If you're in the country, go find a big open field. If you're in the city, get out if you can. If you can't get out, try to find a high point. If you're lucky, you might find yourself near some trees or a hill that can block the moon from your vision. The Clear Sky Chart website has a great list of optimal viewing locations organized by state, so go check it out.
Once you're all settled in, give yourself at least 20 minutes for your eyes to fully adapt to the dark. How do you know if your eyes have adapted? A good rule of thumb says if you can see all the stars in the little dipper (you should count 10) you'll see plenty of meteors. If you can't spot all 10 it's not a big deal, that's just under optimal conditions.
Know when and where to look
According to NASA, the best time to direct your gaze skyward will be between 10 pm local time on Tuesday, Dec. 13, and sunrise on Wednesday, Dec. 14th. That's obviously a pretty big time window, so we recommend using NASA's Fluxtimator to help you determine the best time to watch for meteors. The Fluxtimator even takes your viewing location (i.e. whether you're observing from the city or the countryside) and the brightness of the moon into account. You'll want to set the dropdown menu associated with Showers to Geminids (number four on the list), and change the date on the applet to Dec 13—14, 2011. In both New York and San Francisco, for example, the peak viewing time appears to be a little after 4:00 A.M. local time tomorrow morning.
As for where to look, that depends on who you ask. Some people will tell you to look towards the radiant, where the shooting stars will appear to emanate from (for the Geminids, this is near the constellation Gemini), but bear in mind that meteors' trails tend to be shorter the closer they are to the radiant. Your best bet is to probably just look straight up, or to face away from the moon, keeping in mind that meteors can appear anywhere in the sky.
If you'd like to join local experts, try looking for your neighborhood astronomy club, and find out whether they'll be setting up a telescope you can peek through with friends.
Bring the right stuff
Bring a reclining lawn chair, a blanket, some pillows, a beanie, gloves, a warm coat — whatever you need to get comfortable and still keep your eyes on the sky. Don't try to stand. Standing and looking up may seem like a decent enough idea, but eventually your neck will get tired, and the second you take your eyes off the sky is invariably when the brightest meteors of the night will go blazing by — it's like a code that all meteors live by. If you absolutely HAVE to look away, make sure it's for something awesome like taking a sip of hot chocolate.
You shouldn't really need a telescope or binoculars, because you'll want to keep your eyes on as much of the night sky as possible. Bring something to snack on, but nothing you have to look at to eat. And finally, bring some good company, so you have somebody to "ooh" and "ahh" with while stargazing on this beautiful winter night.
Top image is of a massive fireball photographed during a past Geminid shower — one of the brightest ever recorded, via NASA
Image of radiant via NASA