A meteor shower that might have been born in the destruction of a comet is at its best tonight. It typically reaches a peak of about a hundred “shooting stars” per hour — one of the busiest of all meteor showers. But the peak typically lasts no more than a couple of hours, so it’s a tough shower to watch.
It’s called the Quadrantid shower, for the extinct constellation Quadrans Muralis, which represents an old astronomical instrument. It’s part of present-day Boötes, which climbs into view in the wee hours of the morning. If you trace the meteors across the sky, their paths all intersect in that region.
The Quadrantids appear to be associated with a comet that split apart more than 500 years ago. The breakup created a cloud of debris that spread out along the comet’s orbit. That path is turned almost perpendicular to Earth, so we punch through it like a runner breaking the tape at the end of a race, sweeping up some of the comet dust.
The trail of debris is pushed around by the gravity of Jupiter, which might have been responsible for the comet’s breakup. By a thousand years from now, Jupiter’s gravity might push the meteor stream so much that it will no longer intersect Earth’s orbit — and the Quadrantids will disappear.
For now, look for the meteor shower late tonight. The Moon doesn’t rise until about dawn, so there’s no moonlight to interfere with the celestial fireworks.
Tomorrow: a “gassy” moon.
Script by Damond Benningfield