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Look Up Tonight! The Geminid Meteor Shower Is Here

The Geminid meteor shower makes an appearance over ESO's Paranal Observatory in Chile in December 2012. Image credit: ESO/G. Lombardi

 
It's the time of the year when a mysterious visitor showers all the world with wonder and joy. That's right: Asteroid 3200 Phaethon is coming to town. Its dust particles’ collision with our atmosphere will produce the Geminid meteor shower, which peaks overnight tonight, December 13. It's the only such annual shower with an asteroidal origin.

So why does this happen, and how do you see it?

THE GEMINIDS

The Geminid meteor shower—so named because it appeared to burst forth from the constellation Gemini—graces the night skies midway through December ever year. The Geminids are serious stargazing business: They're often one of the best meteor showers of the year. Alas, in 2016, there's a catch (because this is 2016 and nothing can go right). A supermoon will correspond to the Geminids' peak, meaning the skies will be washed out with moon glow.

This doesn't necessarily doom this year's meteor shower to oblivion. The Geminids are hearty, and the sheer volume of meteors—up to 120 an hour in an average year—promises that something is likely to break through. Should you put some time into it and abscond to a light pollution–free area, you can expect something on the order of 40 events per hour—which is still an awful lot of meteors.

MEET 3200 PHAETHON

The debris responsible for December’s light shows aren’t coming from Gemini, but rather a strange object now known as 3200 Phaethon. Astronomers aren't exactly sure what Phaethon is—an asteroid or a comet. It seems to have originated in the asteroid belt, and yet as it approaches the Sun in its orbit, it grows quite the tail. That's not typical asteroid behavior, but very comet-like. The catch: Comets hail from the Kuiper Belt, located beyond Neptune, not from the asteroid belt like Phaethon.

Since its discovery in 1983, researchers have called it a "rock comet." Over the course of Phaethon's orbit, the Sun heats it up, leading to the ejection of its debris. Comets do this because they are essentially dirty space snowballs: As their volatiles vaporize, trails of particles remain. But asteroids aren't snowballs. They're rocks. So where is Phaethon's tail coming from? One hypothesis [PDF] to explain this strange ejection of dust from a heated asteroid is that as the asteroid heats, the water bound to the rock is lost, leading to stress and cracking. (Think of how mud cracks in a drying lake.) All of this produces dust, which the Sun organizes into that comet-like tail.

Phaethon's 17-month orbit around the Sun brings it inside Mercury's orbit and then out again between Mars and Jupiter. (You can see a visualization here.) It's named after the son of Helios, the Sun god in Greek mythology. Phaethon's orbital path is highly elliptical and intersects with that of Earth every December. Earth plows through Phaeton's trail of dust particles, which collide with our atmosphere at tens of thousands of miles per hour. As they burn away, they release energy that we see as streaks of light and sometimes call shooting stars.

In a sense, Phaethon is astronomy's version of answering a question with a question. For well over a century, astronomers were vexed by the mysterious parentage of the Geminid shower. When they found Phaethon, there was much rejoicing—at first. But soon everyone realized that the answer—a bizarre "rock comet" was its source—was even weirder than the question.

HOW CAN I SEE THE SHOW?

The best time to see the show is from late tonight, December 13, through the first few hours of tomorrow the 14th. If the weather doesn't cooperate, you still have a shot at catching something the following evening. If laying outdoors on the winter ground at midnight in mid-December isn't your thing, you can crank up the heater at home, swaddle yourself in a warm blanket on the sofa, and watch the show live on Slooh.

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10 Things You Might Not Know About Chinese New Year
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iStock

Some celebrants call it the Spring Festival, a stretch of time that signals the progression of the lunisolar Chinese calendar; others know it as the Chinese New Year. For a 15-day period beginning February 16, China will welcome the Year of the Dog, one of 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac table.

Sound unfamiliar? No need to worry: Check out 10 facts about how one-sixth of the world's total population rings in the new year.

1. THE HOLIDAY WAS ORIGINALLY MEANT TO SCARE OFF A MONSTER.

Nian at Chinese New Year
iStock

As legend would have it, many of the trademarks of the Chinese New Year are rooted in an ancient fear of Nian, a ferocious monster who would wait until the first day of the year to terrorize villagers. Acting on the advice of a wise old sage, the townspeople used loud noises from drums, fireworks, and the color red to scare him off—all remain components of the celebration today.

2. A LOT OF FAMILIES USE IT AS MOTIVATION TO CLEAN THE HOUSE.

woman ready to clean a home
iStock

While the methods of honoring the Chinese New Year have varied over the years, it originally began as an opportunity for households to cleanse their quarters of "huiqi," or the breaths of those that lingered in the area. Families performed meticulous cleaning rituals to honor deities that they believed would pay them visits. The holiday is still used as a time to get cleaning supplies out, although the work is supposed to be done before it officially begins.

3. IT WILL PROMPT BILLIONS OF TRIPS.

Man waiting for a train.
iStock

Because the Chinese New Year places emphasis on family ties, hundreds of millions of people will use the Lunar period to make the trip home. Accounting for cars, trains, planes, and other methods of transport, the holiday is estimated to prompt nearly three billion trips over the 15-day timeframe.

4. IT INVOLVES A LOT OF SUPERSTITIONS.

Colorful pills and medications
iStock

While not all revelers subscribe to embedded beliefs about what not to do during the Chinese New Year, others try their best to observe some very particular prohibitions. Visiting a hospital or taking medicine is believed to invite ill health; lending or borrowing money will promote debt; crying children can bring about bad luck.

5. SOME PEOPLE RENT BOYFRIENDS OR GIRLFRIENDS TO SOOTHE PARENTS.

Young Asian couple smiling
iStock

In China, it's sometimes frowned upon to remain single as you enter your thirties. When singles return home to visit their parents, some will opt to hire a person to pose as their significant other in order to make it appear like they're in a relationship and avoid parental scolding. Rent-a-boyfriends or girlfriends can get an average of $145 a day.

6. RED ENVELOPES ARE EVERYWHERE.

a person accepting a red envelope
iStock

An often-observed tradition during Spring Festival is to give gifts of red envelopes containing money. (The color red symbolizes energy and fortune.) New bills are expected; old, wrinkled cash is a sign of laziness. People sometimes walk around with cash-stuffed envelopes in case they run into someone they need to give a gift to. If someone offers you an envelope, it's best to accept it with both hands and open it in private.

7. IT CAN CREATE RECORD LEVELS OF SMOG.

fireworks over Beijing's Forbidden City
iStock

Fireworks are a staple of Spring Festival in China, but there's more danger associated with the tradition than explosive mishaps. Cities like Beijing can experience a 15-fold increase in particulate pollution. In 2016, Shanghai banned the lighting of fireworks within the metropolitan area.

8. BLACK CLOTHES ARE A BAD OMEN.

toddler dressed up for Chinese New Year
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So are white clothes. In China, both black and white apparel is traditionally associated with mourning and are to be avoided during the Lunar month. The red, colorful clothes favored for the holiday symbolize good fortune.

9. IT LEADS TO PLANES BEING STUFFED FULL OF CHERRIES.

Bowl of cherries
iStock

Cherries are such a popular food during the Festival that suppliers need to go to extremes in order to meet demand—last year Singapore Airlines flew four chartered jets to Southeast and North Asian areas. More than 300 tons were being delivered in time for the festivities.

10. PANDA EXPRESS IS HOPING IT'LL CATCH ON IN THE STATES.

Box of takeout Chinese food from Panda Express
domandtrey, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Although their Chinese food menu runs more along the lines of Americanized fare, the franchise Panda Express is still hoping the U.S. will get more involved in the festival. The chain is promoting the holiday in its locations by running ad spots and giving away a red envelope containing a gift: a coupon for free food. Aside from a boost in business, Panda Express hopes to raise awareness about the popular holiday in North America.

A version of this story originally ran in 2017.

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31 Valentine's Day Cards Through the Years
Chris Ware, Keystone Features/Getty Images
Chris Ware, Keystone Features/Getty Images

Giving romantic Valentine's Day cards slowly came into fashion during the 18th century, but they were mostly DIY affairs at the time. By the end of that century, pre-printed cards began to appear, and once the printing and manufacturing technologies of Victorian Britain picked up, the Valentine card industry boomed. Not all sentiments were romantic—some were downright rude—but the tradition of giving friends and loved ones cards has only continued to grow (it's estimated that Americans will spend $1 billion on cards this year alone). Below are 31 cards from years past.

1. 

Vintage Valentine circa 1860
A vintage Valentine circa 1860.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

For the couple who fancies themselves a Victorian-era Romeo and Juliet.

2. 

vintage Valentine circa 1902.
A vintage Valentine circa 1902.
New York Public Library // Public Domain

Here's hoping his best girl can teach this little Edwardian Alfalfa a thing or two about grammar.

3. 

vintage Valentine circa 1902
A vintage Valentine circa 1902.
New York Public Library // Public Domain

He looks so shy about it though!

4. 

vintage Valentine circa 1903
A vintage Valentine circa 1903.
New York Public Library // Public Domain

Puppy love.

5. 

vintage valentine circa 1903
A vintage Valentine circa 1903.
pageofbats, Flickr // Used with permission

Sounds like a recipe for love.

6. 

vintage Valentine circa 1904
A vintage Valentine circa 1904.
New York Public Library // Public Domain

Please, Mr. Postman!

7. 

Vintage Valentine
New York Public Library // Public Domain

For the Irish love in your life.

8.

vintage Valentine circa 1905
A vintage Valentine circa 1905.
New York Public Library // Public Domain

Elaborate flower arrangements have always been quite popular.

9.

Vintage Valentine
A vintage Valentine
New York Public Library // Public Domain

Ahh, the art of love.

10.

vintage Valentine circa 1907
A vintage Valentine circa 1907.
New York Public Library // Public Domain

For when "roses are red, violets are blue" is just a little too … elementary.

11.

vintage Valentine circa 1908
A vintage Valentine circa 1908.
New York Public Library // Public Domain

An enterprising cherub preps for the big holiday by making love locks.

12.

vintage Valentine circa 1909
A vintage Valentine circa 1909.
NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY // PUBLIC DOMAIN

They both seem shocked to be in this position.

13.

vintage valentine with krampus
pageofbats, Flickr // Used with permission

For when your sweetheart loves Santa's demonic counterpart, Krampus, so much that you need to put him on every holiday card.

14.

vintage Valentine circa 1910
A vintage Valentine circa 1910.
New York Public Library // Public Domain

When you want to get a little moralistic with your notes of affection.

15.

vintage Valentine circa 1910
A vintage Valentine circa 1910.
New York Public Library // Public Domain

What a gallant little messenger.

16.

Vintage Valentine circa 1912.
A vintage Valentine circa 1912.
New York Public Library // Public Domain

We vote you don't give the gentleman who sent this the time of day.

17.

vintage Valentine
in pastel, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Like an I-O-U for a walk in the gardens come springtime.

18.

vintage Valentine circa 1920
A vintage Valentine circa 1920.
New York Public Library // Public Domain

Self-deprecating sentiments from the Roaring Twenties.

19.

vintage Valentine circa 1921
A vintage Valentine circa 1921.
New York Public Library // Public Domain

She's got her mind on her honey and her honey on her mind.

20.

vintage Valentine
New York Public Library // Public Domain

Musicians always seem to get the girl.

21.

vintage Valentine circa 1922
A vintage Valentine circa 1922.
New York Public Library // Public Domain

When "the language of the heart" gets lost in translation.

22.

vintage Valentine
pageofbats, Flickr // Used with permission

Dead. I'm dead.

23.

vintage valentine with a clown
pageofbats, Flickr // Used with permission

Creepy clowns are unlikely to win many hearts, "Daddy."

24.

vintage valentine
RoniJJ, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Just make sure your crush doesn't have a seafood allergy.

25.

vintage valentine
pageofbats, Flickr // Used with permission

The hot dog pun almost makes up for putting faces on them.

26.

vintage valentine
pageofbats, Flickr // Used with permission

Tell this stalker to buzz off.

27.

vintage valentine
pageofbats, Flickr // Used with permission

Please avoid this gun show.

28.

vintage valentine

This is frightfully adorable.

29.

valentine
pageofbats, Flickr // Used with permission

Not exactly the most romantic Tennessee Williams line to send …

30.

vintage valentine
pageofbats, Flickr // Used with permission

Racy!

31.

valentine with pizza
pageofbats, Flickr // Used with permission

Now this is a sentiment we can get behind.

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