One of the most spectacular meteor showers of the year will peak tonight as up to 80 shooting stars per hour dart across the night sky.
Stargazers are treated to the exciting but short-lived show of the Quadrantids – known for producing bright “fireball” meteors that leave behind large bursts of light and color that last longer than average meteor streaks.
The shower will last cumulatively from December 28, 2022 to January 12, 2023, but it will officially peak tomorrow at 03:00 GMT (22:00 ET today).
However, this year there is a small catch.
Space Rocks: Stargazers are treated to the exciting but short-lived show of the Quadrantids (pictured in 2019) – known for producing bright “fireball” meteors that leave behind large bursts of light and color that last longer than average meteor streaks
WHAT ARE THE QUADRANTIDS?
The Quadrantids, which peak in early January each year, are considered one of the best annual meteor showers.
Most meteor showers have a two-day peak, making it easier to see those other meteors.
The Quadrantid Peak, on the other hand, is much shorter at a few hours.
The reason the peak is so short is because of the shower’s thin particle stream and the fact that the Earth crosses the stream at a perpendicular angle.
During its peak, 60 to 200 Quadrantid meteors per hour can be observed under perfect conditions.
The Quadrantids are also known for their bright fireball meteors.
Fireballs are larger bursts of light and color that can last longer than the average meteor streak.
A full moon will light up the sky on Friday, meaning the skies will be bathed in the most fantastic moonlight from tonight into the early hours of the morning.
It’s great to see the bright waxing crescent – which will be 94 percent lit – but far from ideal for spotting meteors, as moonlight blocks out all but the brightest space rocks hurtling across the sky.
Nevertheless, it is worth catching the first meteor shower of each year at night and in the early morning hours from the northern hemisphere.
Unlike most other showers that come from debris left behind by comets, the Quadrantids come from asteroid 2003 EH1, which was first observed by Chinese astronomers more than 500 years ago.
There are between six and ten “sporadic” meteors per night year-round, but this increases dramatically during a “meteor shower.”
“During a shower, Earth passes through a cloud of debris left behind by comets and asteroids, and so many more meteors are observed entering the atmosphere,” said the Royal Astronomical Society.
“Unlike many astronomical events, meteor showers are easy to observe and no special equipment is required.
“A meteor shower is best seen with the naked eye, and a lounge chair, a warm blanket, and a hot drink make watching it that much more comfortable on a cold January night.”
The easiest way to find the shower is to look north for the Big Dipper – the prominent cluster of seven bright stars and a useful navigational tool.
Then follow the “arc” of the Big Dipper’s handle across the sky to the red giant star Arcturus, anchoring the bottom of the constellation of Boats, where the meteor shower will appear.
“For the best conditions, you want to find a safe spot away from streetlights and other sources of light pollution,” the Royal Astronomical Society said.
“The meteors can be seen in all parts of the sky, so it’s good to be in a wide open space where you can scan the night sky with your eyes.
“In 2023, the shower maximum will occur just before the full moon, so the moonlight will cause some disturbances.”
The shower’s name comes from Quadrans Muralis, a former constellation created by French astronomer Jérôme Lalande in 1795 that included parts of Bootes and Draco, but has since fallen into disuse.
The easiest way to find the shower is to look north for the Big Dipper – the prominent cluster of seven bright stars and a useful navigational tool
The shower’s name comes from Quadrans Muralis, a former constellation created by French astronomer Jérôme Lalande in 1795 that included parts of Bootes and Draco, but has since fallen into disuse
Unlike other meteor showers, which have a two-day peak, the Quadrantids only last a few hours.
“The reason the peak is so short is because of the shower’s thin particle stream and the fact that the Earth is crossing the stream at a perpendicular angle,” NASA said.
In extreme cases, up to 200 shooting stars per hour can be seen, but that requires perfect conditions in the ideal place on earth.
The US space agency estimates that the Quadrantids will produce about 80 meteors per hour at their peak this year.
However, the Royal Astronomical Society puts the number at 60 to 110 shooting stars per hour.
Meteors are the result of small particles entering Earth’s atmosphere at high speeds, typically around 90,000 miles per hour for the Quadrantids.
The debris heats up from friction with the air and is usually destroyed in less than a second at altitudes over 50 miles.
The superheated air around the meteor briefly flares up and is visible from the ground as a streak of light known as a “shooting star.”
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Explained: The difference between an asteroid, meteorite and other space rocks
An asteroid is a large boulder left over from collisions or the early solar system. Most are located between Mars and Jupiter in the Main Belt.
A comet is a rock covered with ice, methane, and other compounds. Their orbits take them much further out of the solar system.
Astronomers call a meteor a flash of light in the atmosphere when debris burns up.
This debris itself is called a meteoroid. Most are so small that they evaporate in the atmosphere.
When one of these meteoroids makes it to Earth, it’s called a meteorite.
Meteors, meteoroids and meteorites usually come from asteroids and comets.
For example, when Earth passes the tail of a comet, much of the debris in the atmosphere burns up, forming a meteor shower.