Wednesday night marks the peak of the Geminids, a meteor shower that appears to emanate from the constellation Gemini, hence the name.
Seeing a bright, long-tail meteor is one of the most special things you can see during your lifetime. Often when you watch a meteor shower, you'll see the meteors streak quickly across the sky, usually there and gone in a flash. Rarely will you see a bright meteor — one that looks almost like a miniature comet — which leaves a streak in the air a few seconds after it has passed.
The point of this column is not to wax nostalgic about meteor showers, however. The topic of the Geminids is a good opportunity to bring up a common misconception surrounding phenomena in our skies.
Imagine you are sitting in the twilight in the warm summer evening, perhaps sipping on a Coke or adult beverage. The sun has gone below the horizon, and the brightest stars (and perhaps a planet or two) are beginning to show themselves overhead.
All of a sudden, you see this light — about the brightness of a somewhat-bright star — creeping from one end of the sky to another. A moving "star," essentially.
Crazy thoughts begin racing through your head. Is it a bird? (No.) Is it a plane? (No.) Am I witnessing an extraterrestrial craft flying through our atmosphere, watching us from above? (Not likely.)
What you are actually seeing is what's called an iridium flare. This phenomenon occurs when light from the sun bounces off the surface of satellites orbiting the Earth.
You may also notice that when the phenomenon reaches a certain location in the sky, it disappears from sight. That's because the satellite is no longer in a position relative to us to reflect the sun's light.
Now compare iridium flares to meteors. Meteors fly above or through our atmosphere at a very fast clip. Meteors sometimes move so fast they almost look like just a thin line through the sky. In contrast, iridium flares show themselves as a single point of light.
The wonderful website, heavens-above.com, has a list of satellites and when they will be visible in your location ... along with a cornucopia of other cool things. If you want to see an iridium flare, make sure you check it out. And, also see if you can spot some meteors this week.
Joe Malan is astronomy writer for the Enid News & Eagle. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.