One of the most spectacular meteor showers of the year will reach its peak tonight as up to 80 shooting stars per hour streak across the night sky.
Stargazers will be treated to the exciting but short-lived show of the Quadrantids — renowned for producing bright ‘fireball’ meteors which leave large explosions of light and colour that persist longer than average meteor streaks.
The total period of the shower is from December 28, 2022 to January 12, 2023 but it will officially peak at 03:00 GMT tomorrow (22:00 ET today).
However, this year there is a slight snag.
Space rocks: Stargazers will be treated to the exciting but short-lived show of the Quadrantids (pictured in 2019) — renowned for producing bright ‘fireball’ meteors which leave large explosions of light and colour that persist longer than average meteor streaks
WHAT ARE THE QUADRANTIDS?
The Quadrantids, which peak during early-January each year, are considered to be one of the best annual meteor showers.
Most meteor showers have a two day peak, which makes catching sight of these other meteors more possible.
The Quadrantids peak, on the other hand, is much shorter at a few hours.
The reason the peak is so short is due to the shower’s thin stream of particles and the fact that the Earth crosses the stream at a perpendicular angle.
During its peak, 60 to as many as 200 Quadrantid meteors can be seen per hour under perfect conditions.
The Quadrantids are also known for their bright fireball meteors.
Fireballs are larger explosions of light and colour that can persist longer than an average meteor streak.
A full moon will light up the sky on Friday, which means that from tonight and into the early hours of tomorrow the sky will be lit up by the most fantastic moonlight.
Great to see the bright waxing gibbous moon – which will be 94 per cent illuminated – but far from ideal to spot meteors, as the moonlight will block out all but the very brightest space rocks racing across the sky.
Nevertheless, it is still worth trying to catch a glimpse of the first meteor shower of each year during the night and predawn hours from the Northern Hemisphere.
Unlike most other showers, which originate from debris left behind by comets, the Quadrantids come from asteroid 2003 EH1, first observed by Chinese astronomers more than 500 years ago.
There are between six and ten ‘sporadic’ meteors per night throughout the year, but during a ‘meteor shower’ this increases dramatically.
‘During a shower, the Earth passes through a cloud of debris left behind by comets and asteroids, and so many more meteors are seen entering the atmosphere,’ the Royal Astronomical Society said.
‘Unlike many astronomical events, meteor showers are easy to watch and no special equipment is needed.
‘A meteor shower is best observed with the naked eye, and a reclining chair, a warm blanket and a hot drink make viewing much more comfortable on a cold January night.’
The easiest way to find the shower is to look north for the Big Dipper – the distinctive group of seven bright stars and a useful navigation tool.
Then follow the ‘arc’ of the Big Dipper’s handle across the sky to the red giant star Arcturus, which anchors the bottom of the constellation Bootes, where the meteor shower will appear.
‘For the best conditions, you want to find a safe location away from street lights 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 maximum of the shower occurs just before the Full Moon, so moonlight will cause some interference.’
The shower’s name comes from Quadrans Muralis, which is a former constellation created in 1795 by the French astronomer Jérôme Lalande that included portions of Boötes and Draco, but has since fallen out of use.
The easiest way to find the shower is to look north for the Big Dipper – the distinctive group of seven bright stars and a useful navigation tool
The shower’s name comes from Quadrans Muralis, which is a former constellation created in 1795 by the French astronomer Jérôme Lalande that included portions of Boötes and Draco, but has since fallen out of use
Unlike other meteor showers which have a two-day peak, the Quadrantids last just a few hours.
‘The reason the peak is so short is due to the shower’s thin stream of particles and the fact that the Earth crosses the stream at a perpendicular angle,’ NASA said.
At an extreme, up to 200 shooting stars can be seen per hour, but that relies on perfect conditions in the ideal spot on Earth.
The US space agency estimates that at its peak this year, the Quadrantids will produce approximately 80 meteors per hour.
However, the Royal Astronomical Society puts the number between 60 and up to 110 shooting stars per hour.
Meteors are the result of small particles entering the Earth’s atmosphere at high speed, typically around 90,000 mph for the Quadrantids.
The pieces of debris heat up due to friction with the air, and are usually destroyed in under a second at altitudes above 50 miles.
The superheated air around the meteor glows briefly, 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 chunk of rock 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 in ice, methane and other compounds. Their orbits take them much further out of the solar system.
A meteor is what astronomers call a flash of light in the atmosphere when debris burns up.
This debris itself is known as a meteoroid. Most are so small they are vapourised in the atmosphere.
If any of this meteoroid makes it to Earth, it is called a meteorite.
Meteors, meteoroids and meteorites normally originate from asteroids and comets.
For example, if Earth passes through the tail of a comet, much of the debris burns up in the atmosphere, forming a meteor shower.