Spectacular showers of up to 100 shooting stars a minute will light up the skies over Britain tonight – although they’ll peak at 2am, so viewers will have to stay up late and stay at least semi-sober.
Night owls will be rewarded with spectacular multi-coloured meteors which might include occasional rapid bursts of two or three.
Sky watchers say that conditions are ‘perfect’ to view the Geminid meteor shower – as long as the sky isn’t clouded over.
The best time to see the meteors will be at around 2am when the ‘radiant’ – the point in the sky from which the meteors appear to originate – is almost overhead, next to the constellation Gemini.
Robin Scagell, vice-president of the Society for Popular Astronomy, said: ‘It should be a good display, weather permitting – we might not be far off perfect conditions in the UK.
‘The constellation is very high in the sky and most of the Moon will have gone away. An average of one comet a minute would be a good rate, and that’s possible. You might also get little bursts of activity with two or three together.’
Meteor showers occur when the Earth ploughs through clouds of cometary dust.
The tiny particles, some no bigger than a grain of sand, burn up brightly as they enter the atmosphere.
The Geminids are unusual in that they are not shed by a classic icy comet but a body that shares characteristics of both comets and asteroids.
Known as 3200 Phaethon, the three-mile-wide object was discovered in 1983 by two British scientists examining Nasa satellite images and initially classified as an asteroid.
But it has an eccentric orbit that looks more like that of a comet than an asteroid and brings it well inside the orbit of Mercury, the closest planet to the Sun, every 1.4 years. Nasa describes it as a “rock comet”.
Traditionally asteroids are made of rock, and comets mostly of ice.
The Geminid meteor shower itself was first noted in the 1860s. Over time it has become more intense, with up to 20 comets per hour reported in the 1920s, rising to 50 in the 1930s, 60 in the 1940s and 80 in the 1970s.
Travelling at some 22 miles per second, the meteors burn up about 24 miles above the Earth.
Another unusual feature of the Geminids is that they can shine in different colours. Mostly glowing white, they may also appear yellow, blue, green or red.