Steamboat Springs On any given night of the year, a single observer can expect to see about five or six shooting stars, or meteors, every hour of the night, on average. These sporadic meteors can dart randomly from any direction in 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 direction in the sky.
Jimmy Westlake's Celestial News column appears monthly in the Steamboat Today.
Find more columns by Westlake here.
These are the nights of our annual meteor showers, each caused when the Earth plows through the dusty wake of an old comet tail at the same time each year. The most reliable annual meteor showers are the Perseids seen every August, the Geminids every December and the Quadrantids every January. 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 on the mornings of Friday, Jan. 3 and Saturday, Jan. 4 might see as many as 40 to 60 meteors per hour in the dark hours before sunrise. The Quadrantid meteors seem to fan out from a point in the sky just below the handle of the Big Dipper, which hangs high in the northeastern sky on cold January mornings. The shower is named for a now defunct constellation called Quadrans Muralis, the Wall Quadrant, which in modern times has been absorbed into our constellation of Bootes, the Herdsman.
The Quadrantid meteor shower is less well known than the August Perseids or the December Geminids for a number of reasons. First and foremost is the cold winter air on January mornings in the northern hemisphere. B-r-r-r-r! 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 things further is the fact that the peak of the Quadrantid meteor shower is very brief, lasting only a few hours at most. Timing is everything, and the timing this year is not all that favorable for folks living in North America.
This year’s peak is predicted for right around midday on Jan. 3. So, we’ll have about equal odds of seeing meteors before dawn on Friday morning or after dark Friday night.
The moon is new on Jan. 1, and it will not interfere with counting Quadrantids, so why not ring in the new year watching for shooting stars?
Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College's Alpine Campus. His "Celestial News" column appears weekly in the Steamboat Today newspaper and his "Cosmic Moment" radio spots can be heard on local radio station KFMU. Check out “Jimmy’s 2014 Cosmic Calendar” of sky events on his website at www.jwestlake.com. It features twelve of his best astrophotographs and a day-by day listing of cool celestial events that you and your family can enjoy watching in 2014. Proceeds from the sale of Cosmic Calendars help to support the CMC SKY Club.