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Geminid meteors sparkle like gems

Brian Emfinger / RealClearWX

Arkansas photographer Brian Emfinger captured this flash of a Geminid fireball over the city lights of Fort Smith, Ark., early Thursday, using a camera that was set up on Mount Magazine, the state's highest point. For more about Emfinger, check out his website, RealClearWX.com.

Arkansas photographer Brian Emfinger says the best meteor he ever captured on camera happened while he was napping.

"Definitely the brightest meteor I've ever imaged," he said today. "If I was awake, it would have been the brightest meteor I've ever seen."

Emfinger, who snaps pictures of storms and sky phenomena for his RealClearWX website, said the Geminid fireball streaked over the skyline of Fort Smith, Ark., at around 1:07 a.m. CT Thursday, while he was in the midst of an all-night meteor photography session.

The Geminid meteor shower is the year's most reliable display of shooting stars, reaching its peak annually on the night of Dec. 13-14. By most accounts, this was a great year for the Geminids, due to a moonless sky and a meteor tally that reportedly peaked at levels well above the typical 100 to 120 per hour. The flashes occur when bits of debris left behind by an extinct comet known as Phaeton burn up in Earth's atmosphere.

Like many meteor fans, Emfinger was watching the skies not only on the peak night, but on the preceding nights as well. On Wednesday night, he drove up to the top of Mount Magazine, the highest point in Arkansas, and then set up a fisheye camera to take pictures automatically. Sometime after midnight, he settled in for a nap in his car.

A while later, he got a call on his cell phone from a friend who reported seeing something like lightning flashes on the horizon ... on a clear night. "He was assuming it was some spectacular meteor," Emfinger recalled.

As soon as he could, Emfinger checked the shots that were stored on his camera. "I scrolled through them real quick — and there it was, descending toward the skyline of Fort Smith," he said. Observers in Oklahoma and other westward states also reported seeing the fireball, Emfinger said.

That blaze of celestial glory wasn't this week's only Geminid highlight. Scroll down below for other scenes from the past couple of nights. It's important to remember that the show isn't over yet: Although the Geminids have passed their peak, there's still a chance to see a fair number of meteors tonight and tomorrow night. Keep a watch on SpaceWeather.com's gallery for still more meteor photos.

One more thing: In advance of the peak, some experts speculated that there might be a separate wave of meteors that would have been known as the Piscids, sparked by the debris left behind by Comet Wirtanen. These meteors would appear to emanate from a point in the constellation Pisces, rather than the Geminids' point of origin in Gemini. However, I've seen no reports of significant sightings on Thursday night — which suggests that the Piscid meteor shower was a no-show.

Brian Emfinger / RealClearWX

Photographer (and storm chaser) Brian Emfinger captured a bright Geminid fireball on camera early today from Mount Magazine State Park in Arkansas. "My camera caught a bunch of meteors, the most I've ever gotten in any one night of shooting meteors," Emfinger told SpaceWeather.com. Check out Emfinger's website, RealClearWX.com.

Frank S. Andreassen / Nettfoto.com

Norwegian photographer Frank S. Andreassen captured this shot of a meteor streaking through the northern lights outside Harstad at 9:30 p.m. local time Thursday night. For more of Andreassen's work, go to Nettfoto.com.

Menahem Kahana / AFP - Getty Images

Israelis float in a hot spring on the shore of the Dead Sea, near the kibbutz of Ein Gedi, as they look for Geminid meteor streaks above the Judean desert.

Jeffrey Phelps

A Geminid meteor appears to dive into the trees in Saukville, Wis., early Friday. Photographer Jeffrey Phelps sent in this image via NBC News' FirstPerson photo-sharing page for sky highlights. (You can, too.)

More about the meteors:

Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.