Father of Twins? 3200 Phaethon

There are a lot of interesting things about the asteroid known as 3200 Phaethon. Here are a few of those fascinating tidbits:
  • It was discovered in 1983 (it was preliminary known as 1983 TB upon confirmation of discovery) and was the first asteroid to be discovered using images from a spacecraft.
  • During its orbital period, 3200 Phaethon gets closer to the Sun than any other named asteroid.
  • Its name derives from the fact that it gets so close to the Sun. Let me explain: The Greek Sun God, Helios, had a son. His name was PhaĆ«thon... Fast forward thousands of years, humans discover an asteroid that comes really close to the Sun every 30-ish years, we name the asteroid after that son of the Greek Sun God because, like all good sons, he comes to visit his father about once every 30 years then leaves.
  • It has offspring of its own: the Geminid meteor shower.
Let's focus on that last one for a bit.

Most meteor showers have a comet as its parent. Comets are known to shed material as they approach the Sun and warm up. Ice, dust, gas... they all crumble away from the comet and leave a trail of debris outlining their orbit. It's also what creates their visible tails with which we are all so familiar. Asteroids are typically seen as solid masses of rock and metal (hey, I like rock and metal). But they are often conglomerations of loosely compacted rock along with metal and sometimes even ice and gas, but not to the extent that comets have those materials. This asteroid has shed some of its material and, like those comets that are responsible for meteor showers like the Perseids and Leonids, has created a meteor shower of its own.

3200 Phaethon nearing its close approach to Earth
3200 Phaethon nearing its closest approach to Earth. This image was taken the day before 3200 Phaethon's close approach on December 16, 2017. You'll have to wait until 2093 to witness a closer approach. Five 5-minute images were combined to create this image.

The Geminids are visible every year around December 12-15. There was an especially impressive display this last time around in 2017 (not directly related to the coincidental close pass-by of its parent asteroid). The next appearance of the Geminids should also be a good one. The Geminids are believed to be getting gradually stronger and 2018 presents us with another moonless night during the peak. There will be a first quarter moon but it'll set by about 10:30PM PT and the Geminids don't typically peak until about 2-5AM on their peak day. Mark your calendars and don't forget the familial relationship between the Sun (Helios), his son (Phaethon) and his offspring, the Geminids, emanating from the constellation of the twins, Gemini.