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.”
August 11, 2010
Conspiracy Theories: For those who have always harbored a fear of the Bermuda Triangle, or suspected that aliens have contacted Earth, the Air and Space Museum is considering launching an educational program on aerospace conspiracy theories, of which there are many. This week, curator Roger D. Launius of the Space History Division blogs at AirSpace about some of the most notorious conspiracies—moon landing didn’t happen, Amelia Earhart is not dead yet and aliens on Mars, to name a few. Launius welcomes feedback in the comments section of the post.
Leopard Breeding: Last week on Around the Mall, we congratulated the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the National Zoo for their record-breaking breeding season for black-footed ferrets. Researcher JoGayle Howard, a reproductive physiologist at the National Zoo, has worked to develop techniques for artificially inseminating zoo animals. But Howard has long worked on the reproductive physiology of the clouded leopard, a medium-sized cat known for being difficult to breed. Smithsonian Science’s points us to a video of Howard, complete with snapshots of these beautiful animals.
Chop Suey and Beyond: For the past few weeks, Noriko Sanefuji, a research specialist with the American History Museum, has been on a quest to chronicle the story of Chinese restaurants in the United States. Oh Say Can You See has based the blog series “Sweet and Sour” on her journeys and findings. Previous posts have documented the life of the fortune cookie, reminisced on growing up in a Chinese restaurant, and explored the significance of menus as historical evidence. This time around, Sanefuji delves into a food that predominated in Chinese restaurants but that is now seldom encountered—chop suey. In her quest, Sanefuji ends up in Hawaii, ducking into the Chinese restaurants and chatting with their owners.
Meteor Shower on the Way: The Perseids, an annual meteor shower, will reach their peak tomorrow and Friday, August 12 and 13. The Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics recommends viewing after midnight and in a dark place with as little light pollution as possible. Weather here in the D.C. area looks good, so fingers crossed for a spectacular viewing. Too busy this week? The Perseids can be viewed for weeks after the peak.