Jimmy Westlake: Quadrantid meteors to light the sky
December 24, 2012
Steamboat Springs — This year's Geminid meteor shower on Dec. 14 was one of the best I've ever seen — well over 100 meteors per hour at the peak. There's one more shower of meteors coming our way before the meteor season begins to wane — the Quadrantid meteor shower next week.
On any given night of the year, a single observer can expect to see an average of five or six shooting stars, or meteors, each hour of the night. These sporadic meteors can dart randomly from any direction in the sky. There are, however, 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 trail, always on the same days 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. 3 might see 60 or more meteors per hour before dawn brightens the sky. The Quadrantid meteors seem to fan out from a point just below the handle of the Big Dipper, which hangs high in the northeastern sky in the pre-dawn hours of Jan. 3. The shower is named for an outdated constellation called Quadrans Muralis, the Wall Quadrant, which in modern times has been absorbed into our constellation of Bootes, the Herdsman.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. Brrrr! It takes a dedicated meteor watcher to crawl out of a nice, warm bed at 3 a.m. and wander 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 favors folks living in western North America. This year's peak is predicted to occur just before sunrise on the morning of Jan. 3, so the best meteor watching will come between 4 and 6 a.m. The moon will be near its third-quarter phase that morning and will be up all night, but it will be in the opposite part of the sky from the Big Dipper in the northeast. Just put that moon to your back or behind a building, then kick back and watch these silvery meteors zip across the sky.
Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College’s Alpine Campus. Check out "Jimmy's 2013 Cosmic Calendar" of sky events on his website at http://www.jwestlake.com. It features 12 of his best astrophotographs and a day-by day listing of cool celestial events that you and your family can have fun watching in 2013. Proceeds from the sale of Cosmic Calendars help to support the CMC SKY Club.