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The trail of Phaethon

30 Dec 2019, 14:00 UTC
The trail of Phaethon
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Did you catch any of the Geminid meteors in mid-December? It's one of the best meteor showers of the year, occurring when the Earth plows through a debris trail left behind by the asteroid Phaethon as it orbits the Sun, and tiny bits of asteroidal material burn up in our atmosphere. Sadly, this year was seriously hampered by the nearly full Moon, so the show from Earth wasn't as good as it could've been.

But from space, the story is different. Really different: A spacecraft designed to investigate the Sun (which, I'll note, is significantly brighter than your typical meteor) saw the Geminids…. Kinda. Not the meteoroids themselves, but the combined glow of their dust trail orbiting the Sun millions of kilometers away.

This is so cool.

Crash Course Astronomy: Meteors, Meteoroids, and Meteorites, Oh My!

Most meteor showers are due to comets. When a comet gets near the Sun, the ice in it turns to gas, releasing tiny bits of dust and gravel that then form a long debris trail that orbits the Sun in more or less the same orbit as the parent comet. If that orbit crosses Earth's we get a shower.

The Geminids are different. Their ...

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