Jimmy Westlake: Quadrantid meteors due this weekend
December 29, 2014
Steamboat Springs — 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 Sunday morning might see as many as 60 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. 4.
The shower is named for an outdated constellation called Quadrans Muralis, the Wall Quadrant, which in modern times has been absorbed into our constellation of Bootes, the Herdsman. As a result, these meteors also are known as the Bootids.
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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 subfreezing or even subzero 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.
This year's peak is predicted to occur Saturday night into Sunday morning. Unfortunately, this year, the moon will be nearly full on the night of the predicted peak and will be up all night long, 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 as these silvery meteors zip across the sky.
Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College’s Alpine Campus. Check out Westlake’s new "2015 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 enjoy watching in 2015.
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