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 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.
Looking for some Halloween decorating inspiration? Look no further than these spooky displays. From New Mexico to New York, here are eight creepy homes worth going out of your way for each All Hallows' Eve.
1. THE PUMPKIN HOUSE IN KENOVA, WEST VIRGINIA
C-K AutumnFest—an annual fall festival thrown by the West Virginia towns of Kenova and Ceredo—offers scarecrow-building contests, tractor shows, and home-canning competitions, among other activities. Its highlight, however, is probably the Pumpkin House. The historic Victorian abode once belonged to IRS commissioner Joseph S. Miller, a friend of President Grover Cleveland. But when Ric Griffith moved in, he put it on the map with elaborate jack-o'-lantern displays.
Each year, in late October, the onetime Kenova mayor festoons the home’s yard, porch, rooftops, and gables with 3000 glowing pumpkins, some of which sit on specially built displays with music and lights. The laborious project begins in earnest around a month before Halloween, when Miller and his daughter start drawing faces on the gourds. Then, around five days before AutumnFest kicks off, local volunteers help the duo scoop, carve, rinse, and arrange the jack-o'-lanterns into tiered rows around the house and yard.
You can check out the Pumpkin House in person at this year’s festival, which runs October 27-28. “Due to the shelf life of a carved pumpkin, carving will not begin until October 23,” organizer Kim Layman tells Mental Floss. “Once the pumpkins are carved and set into place, they remain lit 24/7. The best time to see the greatest number of pumpkins lit is the weekend of AutumnFest. Weather permitting, the pumpkins will remain lit through Halloween.”
2. DANIEL'S HALLOWEEN HOUSE OF WARWICK IN WARWICK, RHODE ISLAND
The annual Halloween display at 69 Darrow Drive in Warwick, Rhode Island is so over-the-top that it has its own Facebook page for local fans. Past iterations have featured Halloween props designed by homeowner Mike Daniels, spooky interactive figures, and multi-colored lights synchronized to more than 14 songs. This year’s clown-themed yard show won’t be complete until around mid-October, but there will be “new designs and props and music,” Daniels tells Mental Floss. “We’ve added some awesome new stuff!”
Proving that Halloween isn’t always about tricks and/or treats, Daniels typically leaves out a bin for charitable donations. This Halloween, the collection will be donated to the Spirit of Children hospital foundation, which funds art, music, and other therapeutic projects for children receiving medical care.
3. “OPERATION: SCARE ‘N SHARE” IN WELLS, MAINE
In 2006, Stanley Norton of Wells, Maine, began competing with his brother to see who could build the best Christmas light show. The winner gained bragging rights, and the loser was required to hang a portrait of their sibling in their home with the words “I wish I was my brother” underneath. Norton got so into the challenge that eventually, the satisfaction of beating his brother was no longer enough. About two years after the inaugural lights contest, he also began regularly decorating his home for Halloween, an endeavor he’s since dubbed “OPERATION: Scare ‘N Share.”
Norton’s annual display runs the week before Halloween, and features spooky props and thousands of lights synced to radio music. (They're erected with help from the local Wells Soccer team, which Norton used to coach.) The tunes and lights change each year, but visitors are always asked to bring canned goods to donate to a local food pantry. In 2015, Norton’s Halloween house had so many visitors that they collected close to 1000 pounds of food.
4. THE CUNNINGHAM HAUNT HOUSE IN FARMINGTON, NEW MEXICO
When a prospective career in the haunted house industry didn’t work out for him, Darrell Cunningham, a software programmer in Farmington, New Mexico, decided to turn his passion into a hobby by decorating his own home for Halloween. The project soon morphed into an ongoing tradition that's now six or so years running.
Today, Cunningham, with help from his father, constructs elaborate Halloween displays at his parents’ more spacious abode. The Cunningham Haunt House, as it’s called, features handmade props that Cunningham builds himself. (They've included grim reaper, witch, and angel statues fashioned from chicken wire, plastic pipes, paper mâché, and "monster mud," a special mixture of paint and drywall compound.) There are also plenty of spider webs and fake tombstones, as well as projectors that play music videos like Michael Jackson’s “Thriller."
Since Halloween props are expensive, the father-and-son duo is always soliciting either online cash donations or crafting materials—“decorations, webs, pumpkins, wagons light posts, poles, wood, anything that could make cool props,” according to the Cunningham Haunt House’s Facebook page.
5. 84 MAIN STREET, CAMILLUS, NEW YORK
Trick-or-treaters in the greater Syracuse, New York region visit the town of Camillus to admire (and score candy from) Mickie and Bill Hendrix’s house on 84 Main Street. The homeowners are fans of classic horror films, so each October they transform their residence into a spine-tingling attraction complete with a fog machine, orchestral music, a giant barrel of "toxic waste" that pumps out green goo, and life-sized figures of skeletons, clowns, mummies, and vampires.
The display surrounds the house, and trick-or-treaters are forced to navigate their way through a sea of monsters and ghouls to receive candy at the back door. There, they're greeted by jumping motion-sensor creatures. (Some kids are too scared to come to the door, in which case Mickie Hendrix will toss candy out the window, or go downstairs and hand it to them personally.)
The couple have been decorating their home for more than 16 years. "It started out small and just got bigger and bigger," Mickie Hendrix told Syracuse.com. "It's getting out of control and we're getting older. Thank God for our grandchildren. They helped us get everything out." However, the display might be in its final years, as the couple is planning to eventually move to Florida.
6. TERROR ON TILLSON IN ROMEO, MICHIGAN
Halloween is a community affair in Romeo, a tiny 19th century village in Macomb County, Michigan, where residents transform a single two-block street into a spooky wonderland each October.
It’s said that the seasonal spectacle on Tillson Street began with longtime homeowner Vicki Lee, whose birthday falls on Halloween. To celebrate the occasion, she always decorated her home with pumpkins, corn stalks, and scarecrows. Her enthusiasm for the holiday spread, and as more families with young children moved into the area, other neighbors began building handmade Halloween scenes in their own front yards. Ultimately, around 30 homes joined in on the fun, resulting in the street-wide affair that the village knows and loves today.
Today, an estimated 80,000 visitors are said to visit Tillson Street each year to experience the spectacle—nicknamed Terror on Tillson—for themselves. On Halloween, the street is blocked off so kids can safely trick-or-treat under the watchful eye of a makeshift security team of high school athletes. (In a separate event, Tillson Street residents also team up with the Kids Kicking Cancer organization to provide a safe daytime trick-or-treating event for around 50 children with cancer.)
For the past seven years, Brandon Bullis of Leesburg, Virginia has created a musical Halloween light show, covering the front of his house with thousands of lights that are synced to blink along with popular tunes. Past examples include Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” “Handclap” by Fitz and the Tantrums, and "The Fox (What Does the Fox Say?)” by Norwegian electronic group Ylvis, the last of which caused the home to go viral in 2013.
The show—which Bullis has branded “Edwards Landing Lights”—is technically silent, but viewers can listen to its tunes by turning on their car’s radio. They can also add money to a driveway donation box, the proceeds of which are donated to Johns Hopkins Children’s Center.
To see Edwards Landing Lights in person, drive along Woods Edge Drive Northeast in Leesburg, Virginia after dark.
8. EAST 30TH STREET AND TACOMA AVENUE IN LORAIN, OHIO
Ricky Rodriguez constructs Halloween displays that look like movie sets. In 2013, the Lorain, Ohio resident teamed up with his brother Tony to built a giant two-story pirate ship, designed to look like it was crashing through the side of his home. The pirate ship returned to East 30th Street and Tacoma Avenue in 2014 (and presumably 2015), but last year, Rodriguez replaced the vessel with a fabricated steam-powered locomotive, inspired by the final scene of Back to the Future Part III.
Although most Americans spend Halloween dressing up and trick-or-treating, other countries have their own celebratory rituals. Here are 12 Halloween (and Halloween-like) traditions from around the world.