Early risers Saturday might be rewarded with the best Quadrantid meteor shower in years. The meteors, like this one seen just before dawn Aug. 12, will spring from the Northeast sky near the handle of the Big Dipper.
Tuesday, December 30, 2008
Jimmy Westlake's Celestial News column appears Tuesdays 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 shooting stars, or meteors, every hour of the night, on average. These are called sporadic meteors because they can randomly dart from any direction of the sky. But, there are certain nights of the year when a single observer can see 10 times that many meteors or more, all coming from the same point in the sky. These are the nights of our annual meteor showers, caused by the Earth plowing through the dusty wakes of old comets' tails on the same days each year. The most reliable annual meteor showers are the Perseids seen on Aug. 12, the Geminids on Dec. 14, and the Quadrantids on Jan. 3.
The source of the tiny particles that make our Quadrantid meteor shower is uncertain, but it might be a burned-out comet called 2003 EH1. Early risers Saturday morning might see as many as 60 to 120 meteors per hour in the dark hours just before sunrise. The Quadrantid meteors seem to fan out from a point in the sky below the handle of the Big Dipper, which hangs high in the northeastern sky in the pre-dawn hours that day. The shower is named for the now defunct constellation called Quadrans Muralis, which has become a part of our constellation Bootes, the Herdsman.
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 on January mornings in the northern hemisphere. Brrrr! It takes a dedicated meteor watcher to crawl out of a nice, warm bed at 3 a.m. and stumble out into the sub-freezing or even sub-zero temperatures on a clear January morning. Complicating the picture is the fact that the peak of the Quadrantid meteor shower is very brief, lasting only a couple of hours at most. Timing is everything, and the timing this year favors our part of the country. This year's peak is predicted for 6 a.m. Mountain Time on Saturday, perfect timing for western North America. The moon sets early that evening and leaves the sky nice and dark for meteor-watching. With a little luck, the predawn sky Saturday might light up with dozens of Quadrantid meteors. Only those brave enough to face the cold morning air, though, 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 all around the world. His "Celestial News" column appears weekly in the Steamboat Pilot & Today.