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Look for meteors in the early morning sky

A little-known meteor shower named the Quadrantids begins the new year’s skywatching activities, peaking January 4.

Meteor-shower-finder-chart
The Quadrantid meteor shower peaks January 4. The Moon sets after 3 a.m., leaving a few hours of dark-sky viewing.
Astronomy: Roen Kelly
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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.

The annual Quadrantid meteor shower is one of the year’s best. In 2012, this shower will be good after the Moon sets. The shower is most active the evening of January 3 and the morning of January 4. The waxing gibbous Moon drowns out fainter members for much of the night, but it sets shortly after 3 a.m. local time. That leaves nearly three hours to observe under a dark sky. During that time, not only will you see bright meteors easily, but from a dark site you’ll also count quite a few fainter “shooting stars.”

Astronomers are predicting that the Quadrantids will peak around 2 a.m. EST January 4. That time works best for North America, especially considering that the Moon will set about an hour later. Meteor-watchers should keep an eye out for as many hours as possible, however, because predicting meteor shower activity isn’t an exact science.

If your weather is uncooperative on the 4th, don’t fret. The Quadrantids are active from December 28 through January 12, although the hourly rate of meteors decreases as you move away from the peak night.

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, your eyes alone work best because they provide the largest field of view.

Astronomy magazine Contributing Editor Raymond Shubinski, who has observed more than 100 meteor showers, spoke about an important point: “Comfort counts when observing meteor showers,” Shubinski says. “Most importantly, you must keep warm. Observing is not a physical activity — you’ll just be standing or 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.

Shubinski 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.”

How many Quadrantids will you see? Most years under clear moonless conditions, observers count about 120 meteors per hour from a dark site. That’s this shower’s average — two shooting stars a minute. From one year to the next, however, that number can vary from 60 to 200.

The shower’s radiant (the point in the sky from which all 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 got their name from a defunct constellation, Quadrans Muralis the Mural Quadrant, which used to occupy this region of sky.


Quadrantid facts

  • The now-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 de France. French globe-maker J. Fortin introduced Quadrans Muralis as a constellation in his atlas of 1795.
  • The Quadrantid meteor shower originated from a near-Earth asteroid named 2003 EH. Although astronomers classify 2003 EH as an asteroid, most believe it to be a dead comet. Observers first recognized the Quadrantids as an annual meteor shower in 1839.

Meteor shower facts

  • Meteors are small particles of rock and metal 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.”
  • Most meteor showers 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 and a size no larger than a pea.
  • The hourly rate on a “non-shower” night is approximately 6 meteors per hour.
  • A meteoroid enters Earth’s atmosphere at velocities between 50,000 and 165,000 mph (81,000–265,000 km/h).
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