Jimmy Westlake's Celestial News column appears monthly in the Steamboat Today.
Find more columns by Westlake here.
On any given night of the year, a single observer can see about five or six "falling stars," or meteors, every hour of the night. These are called sporadic meteors because they can dart randomly from any direction of the sky. There are certain nights of the year, however, when a single observer can see 10 times that many meteors, all springing from the same point in the sky. These are our annual meteor showers, each caused by the Earth plowing through the dusty wake of a comet's tail. The richest of the annual meteor showers are the August Perseids, the December Geminids and the January Quadrantids.
The Quadrantid meteor shower peaks on the morning of Jan. 4 this year. The sky will be nice and dark because the waning crescent moon won't rise until about 4:30 a.m. Quadrantid meteors seem to fan out from a point in the sky just under the handle of the Big Dipper, which hangs high in the northeastern sky in the pre-dawn hours of Jan. 4. The shower is named after the old constellation of Quadrans Muralis that astronomers used to recognize in this part of the sky but is now a part of our constellation of Bootes, the Herdsman.
The source of the tiny particles that create our Quadrantid meteor shower is uncertain, but it might be a burned-out comet called 2003 EH1. This could be the same object that Asian sky watchers saw as the comet of 1490. Early risers (or late retirees) on the morning of Friday, Jan. 4, might see 60 plus meteors per hour between midnight and dawn. Quadrantid meteors are known for being very fast as they streak across the cold January sky.
The Quadrantid meteor shower is much less well known than the August Perseids for a number of reasons. First and foremost is the cold winter air encountered on January mornings in the northern hemisphere. It takes a dedicated meteor watcher to crawl out of a warm bed at 2 a.m. and stumble out into the sub-freezing or even sub-zero temperatures on a clear January morning! Complicating the situation is the fact that the peak of the Quadrantid meteor shower is very brief, lasting only a few hours at most. Timing is everything. This year's peak is predicted for about midnight on the night of Jan. 3/morning of Jan. 4, perfect for North American observers, but previous years' predictions have sometimes been off by several hours. With a little luck, the morning sky Jan. 4 should light up with dozens of Quadrantid meteors. Only those brave enough to face the cold morning air will find out.
Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College's Alpine Campus. He is an avid astronomer whose photographs and articles have been published on the websites of CNN.com, NASA's "Astronomy Picture of the Day" website, Spaceweather.com, Space.com, Discover.com, MSNBC.com, NationalGeographic.com, and in Sky & Telescope, Astronomy, Night Sky, Discover, and WeatherWise magazines. His "Celestial News" article appears weekly in the Steamboat Pilot newspaper. His "Cosmic Moment" radio spots can be heard on local radio station KFMU.