Quadrantids meteor shower to kick off 2012

11:08 AM, Jan 3, 2012   |    comments
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If you snooze you'll lose Wednesday morning, when a little known but active meteor shower will start 2012 for people stalwart enough to brave the chilly hours before dawn.

The Quadrantids, named for a now-extinct constellation, will be visible for two hours early Wednesday, from about 3 to 5 a.m. local times.

The shower is likely to produce up to 100 falling stars an hour, making for a good show. People across North America who stay up late enough, and who have a clear sky, should get a nice view, says Conrad Jung, an astronomer at Chabot Space and Science Center in Oakland.

Other than typical January temperatures, the weather should cooperate for watchers: "Viewing should be great over most of the country," reports Weather Channel meteorologist Mark Ressler. The only potentially cloudy spots should be in the Pacific Northwest, the Great Lakes and parts of the Northeast, he says.

It's possible that the East may get a more intense shower because it will go through the densest part of the debris stream first. "But that doesn't mean the West won't see anything," he says.

"There should be a meteor every minute or so at the very least," he says.

The shower is called the "Quads" by astronomers, says Bill Cooke, who tracks "space rocks" as director of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. "They're one of the more active meteor showers of the year, but they're not seen by many people" because they occur in early morning hours in winter, he says. "It's very cold around that time, so people don't want to go outside."

The Quadrantids are also less seen because they're short-lived and relatively little is known about them, he says. The Quadrantids are visible for two hours, then are gone for a year.

The meteors will be coming out of the northern portion of the sky, between a somewhat obscure constellation called Boötes and the handle of the Big Dipper.

As for the somewhat odd name of Quandrantids, it's pronounced Quad-RON-tihds, Jung says. Its name comes from a so-called extinct constellation called the Quadrans Muralis. That doesn't mean the stars have disappeared, only that it's a constellation that's no longer recognized by the International Astronomical Union. It fell by the wayside in the early 20th century, when the constellations were formalized, Jung says.

The shower comes from the remnants of a comet named 2003EH1, which probably broke up in the past 500 years. The tiny particles of rock that remain will enter Earth's atmosphere at 90,000 mph, burning up 50 miles above the surface and creating the falling stars that gazers will see.

"It's possible that 2003EH1 was seen by the Chinese back in the 1490s as a comet, so something the Chinese saw over five centuries ago is probably the parent of the Quadrantids," Cooke says.

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