How would you like to see dozens of shooting stars in one hour - many with colors, some seemingly sparking, a few brighter than any actual star. If skies are clear Sunday night, you will have a really good chance to see them at the peak of the Geminid meteor shower.

That is especially true if, you attend the free public skywatch at Belleplain State Forest in northern Cape May County - where you can also get the chance to look through many of New Jersey's finest telescopes to see planets, galaxies and other wonders.

An ideal year for the Geminids: This year, the peak of the Geminids is timed just about perfectly for skywatchers in the United States. The radiant, or the apparent source of the meteors, is the constellation Gemini, which will be nearly at its highest in the sky at about midnight, the time when Earth is supposed to encounter the maximum number of meteors. The moon does not interfere with the Geminids this year because it is rather thin and does not rise until a few hours before dawn.

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What are meteors? They are the swift streaks of light we see when a bit of rock or dust from space enters Earth's upper atmosphere at tremendous speed and burns up from the friction. The Geminid meteors are only medium-swift as meteors go but still have an average velocity of about 82,000 mph.

What are meteor showers? They are an increased number of meteors that all seem to shoot away from a particular point among the constellations. Note, however, that many meteors will appear to originate far from the radiant - but if you extended a line back from the beginning of their path, that line would point to the spot in the constellation, which is Gemini for this meteor shower.

The public skywatch and the Geminid timetable: The skywatch at the recreation field at Belleplain State Forest should begin at about 7:30 p.m. Sunday, weather permitting. For information on how to get there, and to confirm whether the weather is good enough, you can visit:

or call the forest rangers at 609-861-2404.

The Geminid radiant rises at about nightfall. Gemini is fairly low in the east at 8 p.m. and from that time to 9 p.m., but it should be high enough for you to be able to see 15 or 20 Geminids per hour if the sky is very clear. The constellation will then rise fairly high in the southeast. The number of meteors visible should continue to increase and by 11 p.m. or midnight, it will likely hit 50 or 60 Geminids per hour or more (plus there will be some other meteors from other directions).

I hope to see you at Belleplain, early or late. Or try observing elsewhere - but remember that the numbers of Geminid meteors will be greatly reduced when viewed from anywhere in or near a city because of light pollution. We can also see the Geminids, although in lesser numbers, for a few nights before and after Sunday. Write to me about your experience of seeing the meteor shower.

Fred Schaaf is a local author and astronomer. He can be reached at:

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