January 3, 2012
If you can drag yourself out of bed and into the chill of a early January morning, you might find yourself looking at a rare treat: the Quadrantid meteor shower. Early in the morning hours of January 4, from roughly 2 to 5 a.m. local time across the country, this annual meteor shower will be visible in the Northern hemisphere, peaking with an intensity that will approach 100 shooting meteors per hour.
“What’s going on is the earth is going through a debris trail,” says Timothy Spahr, astronomer at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “You’re dealing with very tiny particles, dust-sized in a lot of cases. When they enter the atmosphere, they burn up immediately, and that makes a meteor.” The particles that make up the Quadrantid shower originate from an asteroid named 2003 EH1, which many scientists believe was actually once part of a comet. Because the particles enter at speeds as high as 90,000 miles per hour, they burn up high in the atmosphere and leave a glowing streak across the sky.
The Quadrantid shower is unusual in that it continues for a relatively short duration—only a few hours, as compared to more famous showers, such as the Perseids, that last for several days—but with a high degree of activity. “Under a dark sky, we are talking about 100 visible meteors per hour, so that means a little more than one per minute,” Spahr says. “Many people assume that these showers have millions of meteors all over the sky, but you’ll see around one per minute. And that’s actually pretty cool, because you register when you see each one.”
With the moon projected to set at around 3 a.m. and clear forecasts for much of the country, tonight has the potential to be a rare chance to see the Quadrantids. Most years, because of their brief duration, moonlight or cloudy conditions obscure the show. This year, experts recommend going outside once the moon has set—and, of course, dressing warmly, with projected nighttime temperatures in the twenties or teens in many places. Because of the show’s timing, the best viewings are expected in the Eastern United States.
Meteor-gazers are advised to watch the Northeast part of the sky, and find as dark an area as possible. Give your eyes some time to adjust to the dark and be alert, as most meteors flash by in a second or less. A live feed of the skies above Huntsville, Alabama, is available on NASA’s web site.
One of the biggest factors that determine how many meteors will be seen is something that most people cannot control: location. For those stuck in big cities—like this reporter, based in Washington, D.C.—ambient lighting will reduce the visibility of the meteors significantly. ”A really dark sky makes a huge difference, and most people in the world never see a dark sky because they live in cities,” Spahr says. “If you drove two hours to the west of Washington, say, and got up in elevation a little bit, it would be very nice.”
Still, this is one meteor show that even city-dwellers can appreciate, if not as much as those in the country. “It will be a lot less in a city, but you will still see some meteors tonight,” says Spahr. “Some of these particles will end up, for just a few seconds, as bright as Venus, so those you’ll be able to see from pretty much anywhere.”