December 14, 2009

The Geminid Exoplanets

At the end of my vacation I boarded a plane in the Philippines on December 13, flew for almost 20 hours, and landed in New York--still on December 13. Talk about a long day! It's also the day when i saw the most meteors of my life on a single night!

During the trip while the plane was over the Pacific ocean, with an altitude of 37,000 ft, and headed towards the direction of the Bering Sea and the Aleutian Islands--I saw a delightful series of meteor streaks from my window seat. They were the Geminids!

Here's how i was able to see the spectacular sight: during the flight, while it was relatively dark inside the plane and most of the passengers were sleeping, I draped a blanket over the window and over the back of my head, creating a mini-tent using my arms and hands.

I had to eliminate any glare from inside the plane and keep it as dark as possible by the window.
Yes, i must've looked weird if anyone noticed what i was doing. But as i saw the Geminid meteors--one long streak every minute--they brought a smile to my face and I didn't care what anyone would think.

I've never really had a chance before to enjoy meteor showers, so this experience was a blast. Having missed the Leonids and the Perseids due to cloudy nights, i couldn't bear to miss this one. And i truly enjoyed it.

Because as everyone knows, part of my inspiration to write anything about annual meteor showers is my custom to compile known exoplanets within the proximity of the radiant. So i had to see the Geminids for myself if I was going to write about the last meteor shower of the year.

Although this post was long overdue (I meant to write this before i took my vacation) i'm glad to write it now in a delightful mood. Because as i got home--still December 13--i looked up in the Jersey skies and there they were--the Geminids once again!

So what exactly are the Geminids?

Geminids are pieces of debris from a strange object called 3200 Phaethon. Long thought to be an asteroid, Phaethon is now classified as an extinct comet. It is, basically, the rocky skeleton of a comet that lost its ice after too many close encounters with the sun. Earth runs into a stream of debris from 3200 Phaethon every year in mid-December, causing meteors to fly from the constellation Gemini.

There are only three known Geminid exoplanets so far. And all three of them are gas giants. Now if you've been staring at the direction of the Gemini constellation, you won't miss Castor and Pollux. Two bright stars of Gemini, the twins.
Pollux is the 17th brightest in the sky. But did you know that orbiting this orange star is a gas giant exoplanet? The other gemini exoplanet is orbiting a 5th magnitude orange star HD 59686. The third geminid exoplanet is orbiting a 6th magnitude star HD 50554, quite faint for the unaided eyes but still good for an exogazing challenge.

And so, during your meteorwatch make sure that you talk about these exoplanets to your friends as you wait for the next streak of meteor in the Gemini sky.

May you continue to enjoy the night sky wherever you may be. Clear skies!

Geminid Exoplanets on Freebase
Geminid Exoplanets KMZ file
The Geminids 2009