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Meteors will light up the winter sky

The Quadrantids, one of the best but least-known meteor showers, will shine in the new year.

Meteor-finder-chart
A rush of meteors will populate the predawn sky January 3. Although the Moon will drown out fainter meteors, the Quadrantid shower should still produce a high percentage of bright ones. // Astronomy: Roen Kelly
The annual Quadrantid meteor shower usually is one of the year’s best, and in 2013, it will once again provide a nice display. Throughout the Western Hemisphere, the shower reaches its peak before dawn January 3. Unfortunately, a waning gibbous Moon also is in the sky, and its light will obscure the dimmer streaks. The Quadrantids generate a high percentage of bright meteors, however, so it should still rank among the year’s best showers.

Astronomers are predicting that the Quadrantids will peak around 8 a.m. EST January 3. That time works best for Asia, but North American meteor-watchers should also keep an eye out because predicting meteor showers remains inexact.

You’ll need a clear, dark sky to see more than just a few Quadrantids. “Dark” means at least 40 miles (60 kilometers) from the lights of a large city. You won’t need a telescope or even binoculars — in fact, the eyes alone work best because they provide the largest field of view.

Astronomy magazine Contributing Editor Mike Reynolds spoke about an important detail: “Comfort counts when observing meteor showers. Remember, this event takes place in January, so you must keep warm. Observing meteors is not a physical activity. You’ll probably just be sitting.”

When you’re ready to start observing, set up a lawn chair, preferably one that reclines. To see the maximum number of meteors, just look overhead. Glancing around won’t hurt anything.

Reynolds advises observers to keep a running tally of meteors. “By doing that,” he says, “you’ll get a good idea of how your site compares with observing sites around the world.”
Quadrantid-meteor
This 2012 Quadrantid meteor was easily visible above the imager’s home despite the bright gibbous Moon and the city lights of Dayton, Ohio. // John Chumack
How many Quadrantids will you see? Most years under clear, moonless conditions, observers count 60 to 200 meteors per hour from a dark site (with an average of about 120).

The shower’s radiant (the point from which the meteors seem to originate) lies in the northern part of the constellation Boötes the Herdsman, which will lie low in the eastern sky at midnight and overhead at dawn. The Quadrantids get their name from the defunct constellation Quadrans Muralis the Mural Quadrant, which used to occupy this region of sky. This region climbs some 60° high in the northeast by the time morning twilight begins.

Quadrantid  facts
  • The defunct constellation Quadrans Muralis the Mural Quadrant originally sat between the right foot of Hercules, the left hand of Boötes, and Draco. It represented the mural quadrant of French astronomer Jérome Lalande (1732–1807). Lalande used his quadrant to chart some 50,000 stars, while at the College of France. French globe-maker J. Fortin introduced Quadrans Muralis as a constellation in his atlas of 1795.
  • The Quadrantid meteor shower originates from a near-Earth asteroid named 2003 EH1. Although astronomers classify 2003 EH1 as an asteroid, most believe it to be a dead comet. Observers first recognized the Quadrantids as an annual meteor shower in 1839.
How to observe meteor showers video
Enjoying a meteor shower requires only comfort and patience. Senior Editor Michael E. Bakich gives tips on spending a night under "shooting stars" in this video. Click on the image to go to the video.
Meteor shower facts
  • Meteors are small particles of rock and metal that Earth encounters (runs into) during its orbit around the Sun. In space, these particles are “meteoroids.” When they burn up in the atmosphere, they are “meteors.” If they survive the fiery ordeal of passage through our thick blanket of air and land on Earth, they then become “meteorites.”
  • All meteor showers except the Quadrantids and December’s Geminids originate from comets. When a comet swings around the Sun, it leaves a trail of debris (small meteoroids). Sometimes, the orbit of this debris crosses Earth’s orbit. When Earth runs into this stream of particles, we experience a meteor shower.
  • No known meteorite has come from a meteor shower — the particles are too small.

Interesting facts about meteors
  • To be visible, a meteor must be within about 120 miles (200 kilometers) of an observer.
  • Meteors become visible at an average height of 55 miles (90km). Nearly all burn up before they reach an altitude of 50 miles (80km).
  • The typical bright meteor is produced by a particle with a mass less than 1 gram with a size no larger than a pea.
  • The hourly rate on a “non-shower” night is approximately 6 meteors per hour.
  • A meteoroid enters the atmosphere at velocities between 50,000 and 165,000 mph (81,000 and 265,000 km/h).
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