An extinct constellation reminds us of its presence the next couple of nights -- Quadrans Muralis, the wall quadrant. It vanished centuries ago, when astronomers divided its stars among several other constellations.
We're reminded of it by the year's first meteor shower -- the Quadrantids. Its meteors appear to "rain" from the direction of Quadrans Muralis. On modern starcharts, that's around Bootes, the herdsman.
Meteor showers are rains of debris left behind by comets. As Earth passes through a comet's orbital path, it encounters some of this debris. Most of the bits of comet dust are no bigger than BBs. But as they streak through our atmosphere at tens of thousands of miles an hour, they vaporize, creating the streaks of light known as meteors.
The Quadrantids are different from most showers. They come and go in just a few days, compared to a week or two for most showers. But they generally put on a pretty good show.
This should be a pretty good year for the Quadrantids. The Moon doesn't rise until the wee hours of the morning, so it won't overpower the fireworks.
The best time to look is after midnight, when Bootes rises into view -- particularly tomorrow night, when the shower should be at its best. The meteors can streak across any part of the sky, though, so you don't have to look in a particular direction to see them. With luck, you might see several dozen "shooting stars" lighting up the cold night sky.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2007
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