Jimmy Westlake: Meteors for the New Year
December 28, 2010
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. 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 Aug. 11 and 12, the Geminids every Dec. 13 and 14 and the Quadrantids every Jan. 3 and 4.
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 morning of Jan. 4 might see as many as 60 to 120 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 in the pre-dawn hours of Jan. 4. The shower is named for a 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 subfreezing 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 brief, lasting only a few hours at most. Timing is everything, and the timing this year favors folks living in Europe. This year's peak is predicted for 6 p.m. Monday evening, but this prediction can be off by several hours, so our best bet probably is after midnight Monday. The moon is new Jan. 4, leaving the sky nice and dark for meteor watching. With a little luck, the predawn sky Jan. 4 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. His "Celestial News" column appears weekly in the Steamboat Pilot & Today newspaper. His "Cosmic Moment" radio spots can be heard on local radio station KFMU. Also, check out Jimmy's website at http://www.jwestlake.com.