Geminid Meteor Shower: Shooting Stars, One Injury

Image from last year's Geminid meteor shower, seen from Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada, Dec. 14, 2010. Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The Geminid Meteor Shower of 2011 was a hit with stargazers, some reporting they saw more than 80 shooting stars per hour despite a bright gibbous moon high in the sky.

There was also at least one accident. The California Highway Patrol reports a man in the mountains north of Los Angeles, looking for a good, dark vantage point at 11:30 p.m., drove his car off the road and 40 feet down the side of a canyon, though he had only minor injuries.

The man was on Glendora Mountain, south of the Angeles National Forest, when he went over the edge, said Kerri Rivas of the highway patrol.

"The driver was able to call 911," she said. "He didn't know his location, so he honked his horn every 30 seconds, and that's how officers, who were driving with their windows open looking for him, were able to find him."

The Los Angeles County Fire Department, which was asked to dispatch a helicopter, pulled the man out, though they left it to him to hire a towing company today to remove his banged-up Mustang.

For those who had a better night, the meteor shower was a quietly spectacular display. At least one person near San Jose, Calif., reported getting a fireball on camera on YouTube.  Watch the leftmost edge of the frame:

The Geminids, which happen this time of year like clockwork, are an oddity. Most major meteor showers - the Perseids in August, the Leonids in November - have occurred for thousands of years, caused as Earth passes through clouds of debris left by passing comets.

But the Geminids only appeared in the 1860s. Not until 1983 did astronomers figure out their origin. They found an asteroid, 3200 Phaethon, in a lopsided orbit that crosses our own and also brings it close to the sun - close enough that the sun's heat probably cracks it and kicks up dust, which, over time, has spread out along the asteroid's path. We're passing through the dust clouds; the shooting stars are pieces, no larger than grains of sand, burning up as they plow into the atmosphere.

In general, there are more shooting stars in the morning hours because that's the side of the Earth that faces forward as we orbit the Sun, so it's less shielded. While the shower actually peaked early Wednesday, meteors are often spotted several nights before and after.

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