From: ENN Staff
Published December 3, 2013 09:12 AM

Geminids Meteor Shower Caused by Rock Comet

The Geminids are a fast, bright, and reliable meteor shower that can be observed every December (with the morning of the 14th usually marking the peak of highest intensity.) During this time, the sky fills with flashes of light shooting out of the constellation Gemini. But where exactly do the meteors come from?

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Meteor showers are supposed to come from comets, yet there is no comet that matches the orbit of the Geminid debris stream. Instead, the orbit of the Geminids is occupied by a thing called "3200 Phaethon" - a five-kilometer diameter asteroid. Resembling a rocky asteroid, Phaethon swoops by the sun every 1.4 years, much like a comet would, but it never sprouts a dusty tail to replenish the Geminids.

That is, until now.

A group of astronomers led by Dave Jewitt of UCLA have been using NASA's STEREO probes to take a closer look at 3200 Phaethon when it passes by the sun. The twin spacecraft were designed to monitor solar activity, so they get a good view of sungrazing comets and asteroids. In 2010 one of the STEREO probes recorded a doubling of Phaethon's brightness as it approached the sun, as if sunlight were shining through a cloud of dust around the asteroid. The observers began to suspect 3200 Phaethon was something new: a rock comet.

A rock comet is, essentially, an asteroid that comes very close to the sun--so close that solar heating scorches dusty debris right off its rocky surface. This could form a sort of gravelly tail.
In further STEREO observations from 2009 and 2012, Jewitt along with colleagues Jing Li of UCLA and Jessica Agarwal of the Max Planck Institute have spotted a small tail sticking out behind the "rock."

"The tail gives incontrovertible evidence that Phaethon ejects dust," says Jewitt.

Jewitt's team believes that the dust is launched by thermal fracturing of the asteroid's crust. A related process called "desiccation fracturing" may play a role too.

Seeing 3200 Phaethon sprout a tail, even a small one, gives researchers confidence that Phaethon is indeed the source of the Geminids--but a mystery remains: How can such a stubby protuberance produce such a grand meteor shower?

Adding up all of the light STEREO saw in Phaethon's tail, Jewitt and colleagues estimate a combined mass of some 30 thousand kilograms. That might sound like a lot of meteoroids but, in fact, it is orders of magnitude too small to sustain the massive Geminid debris stream.

Read more at NASA.

Meteor shower image via Shutterstock.

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