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Tonight's Geminid meteor shower could bring up to 120 shooting stars per hour

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

OK, this is a week for a cosmic spectacle. The Geminid meteor shower has been lighting up the night skies. At its peak, which continues through tonight, stargazers can see dozens of shooting stars each hour. While most meteor showers are made up of icy and dusty comet particles, Kelly Beatty at Sky and Telescope magazine tells WBUR'S Here and Now that Geminids are different.

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KELLY BEATTY: This is due to an asteroid called Phaethon, which circles the sun very tightly - comes as close as 13 million miles to the sun, gets to 1,300 degrees on its surface.

INSKEEP: That sounds hot. Described by NASA as the most reliable meteor shower of the year, the Geminid shower gets its name from the constellation Gemini, where the meteors first appear.

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BEATTY: Little particles are being blasted off by sunlight, and it's those little particles spread along its orbit that we plow through every December. They create a streak that's bright enough to actually trigger a color response in our eye. But if it gets bright enough, then we can see a bright color and different colors in these meteors.

INSKEEP: I love that perspective. It's not that they're falling on us. We are plowing through them. As the Earth orbits the sun moving around, it passes through this trail of asteroid debris, where they burn up on contact with our atmosphere.

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BEATTY: Twenty miles a second these particles...

ROBIN YOUNG: Oh, boy.

BEATTY: ...Are hitting our atmosphere. And so they hit very high up - you know, 80 miles up - 60, 80 miles. And they create a superheated, white streak in the atmosphere.

INSKEEP: You can see the Geminid display through December 24 starting around 9 or 10 at night. Here's a pro tip - get the best view after midnight and turn toward a patch of dark sky.

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BEATTY: That could be straight up. It could be, you know, to the south - wherever it's darkest. Get away from city lights. Turn off the porch light. Let your eyes get adjusted to the dark, and you might see up to one meteor per minute.

INSKEEP: NASA says that, at its peak - and again, that continues tonight - the Geminid meteor shower delivers as many as 120 shooting stars per hour, delivered by the universe - a show that's free.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.