Jimmy Westlake: Start your new year with a meteor shower
On any given night of the year, one 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 certain nights of the year, however, when 10 times that many meteors all coming from the same direction in the sky can be seen. These are the nights of our annual meteor showers, each one caused when the Earth plows through the dusty wake of an old comet trail, always on the same day each year.
Our best annual meteor showers are the Perseids, seen in mid-August, the Geminids seen in mid-December and the Quadrantids seen in early January each year.
The Quadrantid meteor shower is less well known than the August’s Perseids or the December’s Geminids for a number of reasons. First and foremost is the cold winter air on January mornings in the northern hemisphere. It takes a dedicated meteor watcher to crawl out of a nice, warm bed at 1 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 for only a few hours, at most. Only observers across a small slice of the Earth get to observe the peak of the Quadrantid meteor shower each year.
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 The shower is named for an old, outdated constellation named Quadrans Muralis, the Wall Quadrant, which now has been absorbed into our constellation of Bootes, the Herdsman.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 Bootids.
This year’s peak is predicted to occur on the night of Jan. 3 to 4, about 1 a.m., perfect for folks living in the western United States. Sky watchers might see as many as 120 meteors per hour in the wee hours of the morning, before dawn begins to brighten the sky.
The Quadrantid meteors will seem to radiate 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 meteors, though, will streak across all parts of the sky, so it won’t matter what direction you face.
The waning crescent moon, flanked by Mars to the west and Venus and Saturn to the east, will rise about 2 a.m., but its feeble light shouldn’t hinder meteor watching. Just put that moon to your back or behind a building and then watch as these New Year’s meteors zip across the sky.
While you are out watching for Quadrantid meteors, try to spot Comet Catalina, now hovering near the limit of naked eye visibility.
Use binoculars and scan about a half fist at arm’s length to the upper left of the bright star Arcturus in the constellation of Bootes. You can identify Arcturus by following the arc of the Big Dipper’s handle to the first bright star you come to. The comet will look like a small, greenish fuzz ball, perhaps sporting a short tail.
Comet Catalina passes closest to Earth on Jan. 12, so the first two weeks of January will be the best time to view it.
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 new “2016 Cosmic Calendar” of sky events on his website at http://www.jwestlake.com. It features 12 of his best sky photos and a day-by day listing of cool celestial events that you and your family can enjoy watching in 2016.
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