Celestial News: Meteor shower rings in New Year
One of the best manual meteor showers of the year will light up Colorado skies early next week. It’s called the Quadrantid meteor shower, and it could bring dozens of “falling stars” per hour at its peak.
The Quadrantid meteor shower is less well-known than the August Perseids or the December Geminids for a number of reasons. First and foremost are the cold January mornings in the northern hemisphere. 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 and frosty 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. Only observers across a small slice of Earth get to observe the peak of the Quadrantid meteor shower each year, and this year, Colorado is in just the right slice.
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. The shower itself is named for an old, outdated constellation named Quadrans Muralis, the Wall Quadrant, which now has been absorbed into our constellation of Bootes, the Herdsman. Consequently, this meteor shower also is known as the Bootid meteor shower.
This year’s peak is predicted to occur about 7 a.m. Jan. 3, perfect for folks living in the western United States. Sky watchers might see as many as 120 meteors per hour during the wee hours of the morning, before dawn begins to brighten the sky.
The Quadrantid meteors will seem to radiate from a point just below the handle of the Big Dipper, which will hang high in the northeastern sky in the pre-dawn hours of Jan. 3. The meteors, however, will streak across all parts of the sky, so it won’t matter what direction you face.
I’ve only experienced a few really good Quadrantid meteor showers — in years the Moon didn’t interfere, the skies were clear and the timing favored my location. In those years, the Quadrantids left me with a couple of impressions. Quadrantid meteors are very fast. Some will even leave you wondering if you actually saw them at all, they come and go so quickly. To me, they look sort of silvery and seem to shimmer as they shoot across the sky. In that respect, they are very different than the Perseids or the Geminids.
The waxing crescent moon will set about 9:30 p.m. on the night of the peak, leaving the predawn sky dark and perfect for meteor watching. Bundle up in a warm sleeping bag and kick back in a reclining lawn chair, then watch the Quadrantids light up the sky.
Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College’s Steamboat Springs Campus. His “Celestial News” column appears weekly in Steamboat Today. Check out Westlake’s new “2017 Cosmic Calendar” of sky events on his website, jwestlake.com. It features 12 of his best astro photos and a day-by-day listing of cool celestial events you and your family can enjoy watching all year.
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