A lovely enhanced photograph caught during a meteor shower. You will have this chance tonight during the meteor shower astronomical event of November. Credit: Shutterstock

A catastrophic event caused the Geminids

NASA's Parker Solar Probe mission is providing new evidence that a violent and catastrophic event created the Geminids, one of the most intense meteor showers.


In the frosty heart of winter, the Geminid meteors race through Earth’s sky, offering a stellar spectacle. But have you ever wondered about what caused the Geminids? Recent data from NASA’s Parker Solar Probe suggests a violent upheaval birthed this annual light show, challenging conventional wisdom.

Comets vs Asteroids: Challenging Meteor Shower Origins

Meteor showers traditionally trace back to comets, icy dust-laden bodies. When nearing the Sun, a comet’s ice vaporizes, releasing gas and ejecting dust and fragments. Over time, these particles fill the comet’s orbit, forming meteor showers as Earth intersects this cosmic stream.

In stark contrast, the Geminid shower seems linked to an asteroid—3200 Phaethon, a rock-metal body resilient to solar heat. This has triggered scientific curiosity about Phaethon’s orbital dust trail formation.


What Caused the Geminids?

“We know Phaethon is an asteroid, but curiously, it displays temperature-driven activity when near the Sun—a rare trait among asteroids,” said Jamey Szalay, a Princeton University scholar and co-author of a recent Planetary Science Journal study.

This investigation builds on previous work by Szalay and his Parker Solar Probe mission colleagues, using direct Geminid images from Karl Battams’ team. Their efforts provide insight into the dust cloud behavior in the innermost solar system. The probe’s orbit path, closer to the Sun than any spacecraft before, offers the best look at dust grains from comets and asteroids.

Unconventional Dust Tracking Techniques

Constructed and managed by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, the Parker Solar Probe lacks a dedicated dust counter to measure grain mass, composition, speed, and direction. Nevertheless, dust grains strike the spacecraft, forming distinct electrical signals or plasma clouds. The probe’s FIELDS instrument picks up these signals, shedding light on the electrical and magnetic fields near the Sun.


Violent Event Likely Spawned the Geminid Stream

Using Parker data, the team modeled three Geminid stream formation scenarios. Comparison with existing models from Earth-based studies revealed violent scenarios align best with the Parker data. This suggests a swift, powerful event, such as a high-speed collision or gas explosion, likely gave birth to the Geminid stream.

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Written by Ivan Petricevic

I've been writing passionately about ancient civilizations, history, alien life, and various other subjects for more than eight years. You may have seen me appear on Discovery Channel's What On Earth series, History Channel's Ancient Aliens, and Gaia's Ancient Civilizations among others.

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