Former Leicester astronomers recall how they discovered the source of the dazzling Geminids meteor shower

Posted by ap507 at Dec 11, 2015 05:15 PM |
The annual display will peak between the evening of Sunday 13 December and dawn on Monday 14 December

The beautiful Geminids meteor shower is due to light up the heavens this weekend, but the source of the enigmatic cosmic display had eluded stargazers for more than 120 years.

Although the popular astronomical event has been observed since the 1800s, its origins had long remained a mystery - until,in 1983, two Leicester astronomers – Dr Simon Green and Dr John Davies – were studying data from the infra-red sensitive telescope on the Infrared Astronomical Satellite, IRAS, and discovered an asteroid with a very unusual orbit.

Originally designated 1983 TB, the comet was renamed 3200 Phaethon after the son of Greek Sun god Helios – an appropriate moniker as it orbits closer to the Sun than any other asteroid then known.

Shortly after the find, Harvard astronomer Fred Whipple was able to link the newly discovered rocky object, which is about three-miles wide, with the Geminids meteors, and the mystifying source of the showers was revealed.

Now a Senior Lecturer in Planetary and Space Sciences at the Open University, Dr Green, who was a PhD student at Leicester during the time of the discovery, went on to be Comet Halley UK Co-Ordinator and also worked on several space missions including Cassini, Huygens, Stardust and Rosetta.

Dr Davies moved the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh in 1987 and then relocated to Hawaii in 1993, to join the Joint Astronomy Centre before returning to Edinburgh in 2001.