Moon, Mars, and Meteors

StarDate: January 2, 2010

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The first meteor shower of the year is at its best the next couple of nights. Unfortunately, the gibbous Moon will overpower all but the brightest of its "shooting stars." But the Moon puts on quite a show of its own -- it teams up with the planet Mars. They rise in mid evening, with bright orange Mars not far to the left of the Moon.

The meteor shower is known as the Quadrantids. It's named for the extinct constellation Quadrans Muralis, which honored an old astronomical instrument known as the wall quadrant. The meteors appear to "rain" into Earth's atmosphere from that direction -- below the feet of present-day Hercules.

During a good year, you might see several dozen shooting stars an hour at the shower's peak -- a rate that's better than most showers.

But this is a poor year for a couple of reasons. The Moon is the main drawback, but the timing is bad, too. From the United States, the shower hits its peak in the middle of the day tomorrow -- not exactly prime time for meteor watching. And the Quadrantids don't linger like some showers do -- there's a big spike during the peak hours, but not much before or after.

If you want to give it a go, the best time to look is in the wee hours of tomorrow morning, when our portion of Earth turns most directly into the meteor stream. And if even if you don't see any meteors, there's a nice consolation prize that's in view most of the night: the Moon and the planet Mars.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2009

For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.

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