John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
An expert explains why light pollution won't totally destroy 2012's final and most dazzling space show.
When the latest and greatest meteor shower of 2012 – the eye-jacking Geminids – arrives tonight, people in rural areas will see the heavens light up like two vicious alien races locked in a laser battle to the death.
Meanwhile, most folks living in cities will see distant airplane beacons, humming neon liquor-store signs, spotlights from the corner club's "Twerkin' Thursdays," blinding automotive high beams and perhaps that weird neighbor who stands in his fully illuminated bathroom to pluck rogue chest hairs.
Does it have to be like this? Are city dwellers forever doomed to miss out on one of astronomy's most extraordinary performances? In the case of the Geminids, the answer actually is no. Atmospheric conditions are lining up to ensure that metropolitan citizens worldwide will be able to catch a few flaming spaceballs, if they know the right way to look for them.
The Geminids, a cloud of interplanetary sweepings trailing the rocky object 3200 Phaethon, are peaking from Thursday night into Friday morning. A new moon will ensure that the astral dome looks like black velvet, while the weather is being more or less cooperative with no major storms in sight (in America, at least – you guys in Upolu are screwed). There's even an extra dash of meteors arriving in the early evening from Comet Wirtanen, which could spice up the fiesta of falling stars.
Light pollution means that only the brightest meteors, aka "fireballs," will be seen over the skyscrapers. Whereas someone in a cabin in the woods could see 100 meteors an hour early Friday, an urban resident might expect to observe about one-tenth of that amount, says Bill Cooke, head of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office. Cooke eats a heaping bowl of meteors every morning helping run the fireball-tracking camera network in the southeast United States. He was gracious enough to take a few minutes yesterday to talk about Geminids in the urban environment.
Forthwith is Cooke's abbreviated guide to Watching Meteor Showers in the Big City:
1. Choose a dark spot. "The last thing you want is a street light or a bright sign hitting your eyes," says Cooke. Head to a park with little illumination or duck into the shadow of a building. Don't be too good at hiding, though. It's hard to see the Geminids while crying because a startled jogger sprayed you with Mace.
2. Just look up. Seems self-evident, but a lot of people go hunting with binoculars and telescopes. These devices are acting as blinders. Simply lying on your back provides a full view of the sky and any meteors streaking through it. Again, make yourself visible by wearing white clothing or something. Recognizing meteors can be tricky with the aforementioned jogger's Adidas planted on your face.
3. Be patient. Urban-fireball chasing rewards the person who doesn't mind shivering for ages in hostile rat territory. (Oh yeah, bring a warm, rat-proof blanket to lay on.) "Do not go outside and expect to see Geminids in 15 minutes," Cooke says. "You need to go out for one or two hours if you're really going to look."
4. Don't think too much about Deep Impact, Armageddon, Doomsday Rock, etc. If you brought an umbrella decked out in armor plating, that was unnecessary. Meteor showers are not often accompanied with head-crushing chunks of celestial real estate. "Meteors will burn up 30 to 50 miles above your head," assures Cooke. "If you're thinking about a huge meteor taking out New York City, that is not going to happen."
5. Be flexible. If you really can't see anything tonight, don't give up – the 21st century offers alternative meteor-enjoyment opportunities. There's a Texas-based Air Force radar that picks up the pings! of passing meteors, for instance. Also, Cooke and company will be streaming the Geminids from Alabama beginning at dusk and also holding a live chat at 11 p.m. Click here if you want to watch on your computer, but please refrain from asking inane questions like, "When they burn up in the atmosphere, do meteors make little screams?"
Top photo is a false-color composite of Orionid, Perseid and Geminid meteors from 2009 to 2011, provided by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center on Flickr.