When to watch the Geminid meteor shower — and Comet Leonard zooming by

Keep your fingers crossed for clear skies tonight.

The Geminids, one of the most reliable meteor showers, will peak in the wee hours Monday night and into Tuesday morning. Most people know about the Perseid meteors in August — but the Geminids are the “show of the year,” says Kelly Beatty, senior editor of Sky & Telescope.

The meteors come from a tiny asteroid called Phaethon, which has a short orbit. When Phaethon comes close to the sun, the more than 1,000-degree sunlight beats down on the asteroid causing pieces to spall off, Beatty says.

“This time every year, we plow through those,” he says. “They hit our atmosphere at about 20 miles a second and create this really dependable display of shooting stars or meteors in the sky.”

The shower will peak in North America overnight — perfect timing — but the moon’s bright light will distract a bit from the show, he says.

“Ordinarily, under perfectly dark skies, you could expect to see at least one meteor per minute from a dark location,” he says. “The moon is going to spoil that a little bit.”

People can start to see a few meteors in the sky as early as 9 p.m. anywhere on the continent, Beatty says. The Geminid shower is famous for its bright meteors called fireballs.

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Dedicated stargazers should stay up late or wake up early in the morning after the moon sets to see the best view around 3 a.m. to 5 a.m., he says. And if the clouds roll in, observers can still see a few meteors in the sky tomorrow and the night after.

“This is a shower with a fairly sharp peak,” he says, “so please do get outside if it’s clear where you are.”

Another celestial sighting in tonight’s sky is a comet named Leonard, which was named after the scientist who discovered it. Leonard doesn’t come around as often as the Geminids: This is a once-in 80,000 years opportunity.

Leonard will emerge into the evening sky right after sunset, Beatty says. The comet is moving between Earth and the Sun, so some particles may form a lit-up tail.

Viewers in the northern hemisphere will need binoculars to see this comet, which isn’t as bright or obvious as last year’s Comet NEOWISE, he says.

To catch a glimpse of Leonard before it disappears for almost a century, wait 30 to 45 minutes after sunset and look low on the horizon to the west and southwest, Beatty says.

“It’ll look like a small, fuzzy ball, maybe with a short tail sticking upright,” he says. “And that’s telling you that you’re looking at a comet and not just a star.”

Julia Corcoran produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Chris BentleyAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

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