Geminids meteor shower began life in a ‘violent catastrophe’, scientists say

Andrew Griffin
Thursday 15 June 2023 16:33 BST
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<p>A photo of the Geminid shower from the Kubuqi Desert in Inner Mongolia, China</p>

A photo of the Geminid shower from the Kubuqi Desert in Inner Mongolia, China

The Geminids meteor shower began in a “violent catastrophe”, scientists have found.

Every winter, the world is delighted by the meteor shower, which brings some of the most intense display of ‘shooting stars’.

But that spectacle has been rivalled by its mystery. The Geminids are unusual in that most meteor showers are created when a comet leaves behind a tail of ice and dust – but the Geminids come from an asteroid, which do not usually leave behind a tail.

Asteroids are chunks of rock and metal flying around in space. The Geminids appear to originate with one called 3200 Phaethon, which for an unexplained reason is affected by the Sun and leaves behind a stream across the night sky.

“What’s really weird is that we know that 3200 Phaethon is an asteroid, but as it flies by the Sun, it seems to have some kind of temperature-driven activity,” said Jamey Szalay, research scholar at the Princeton University space physics laboratory and co-author on the paper. “Most asteroids don’t do that.” 

Attempts to solve that mystery have struggled in part because the meteor shower has only been observed from Earth. Now, however, researchers using Nasa’s Parker Solar Probe have been better able to examine the the Geminids.

They suggest that a violent, catastrophic event gave rise to the meteor shower. That could have been a high-speed collision with another object in space, for instance, or a gaseous explosion.

Some researchers have previously suggested that 3200 Phaethon might really be a comet, and that it lost its snow to leave behind just a rocky core that looks like an asteroid. But the new study makes clear that the origins of the meteor shower are much more dramatic than that.

In an attempt to understand the meteor shower, researchers simulated three possible formation scenarios and then compared them with models based on observations from the Parker Solar Probe. That included a less violent scenario, a more violent one, and another that was in line with a comet.

When they compared those scenarios with the actual observations, they found that the violent one was the most similar. That suggests that it was the result a collision or similar dramatic event.

Researchers still do not know for sure what happened. But the new study helps narrow down the possibilities – as well as shedding more light on such events in space.

The findings are published in a new article, ‘Formation, Structure, and Detectability of the Geminids Meteoroid Stream’, published in Planetary Science.

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