Look Up! The Quadrantids Are Coming!

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UPDATE: Tonight, NASA will stream video from an all-sky camera in Huntsville, Ala., in the hope those with cloudy skies may still enjoy the meteor shower (see bottom of article for the live feed).

In the early hours of Wednesday morning, the upper atmosphere will be peppered by the grainy remnants of an ancient icy body, heralding the first meteor shower of 2012.

The Quadrantids is the first, and it may also be the most spectacular shower of the year, but it is also one of the most unpredictable.

Though some estimates suggest sky-watchers may spot 100 meteors (or “shooting stars”) per hour, that number is far from certain.

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“If your skies are very clear and dark, allowing you to see faint meteors, your rates could top 100 per hour,” Robert Lunsford, of the American Meteor Society, told Space.com. “Observers located in the western portions of North American will have lower rates but will also have the opportunity to see Quadrantid ‘earthgrazers.’”

“Earthgrazers” are meteors that skim through the upper layers of the Earth’s atmosphere. As a result, their tails can appear longer. But to view them you need to look close to the horizon, a situation that could prove tricky if light pollution is a problem in your area or you lack a good vantage point.

Peak meteor activity is predicted to occur at around 2:30 a.m. EST (0730 GMT) and the shower favors North American observers. However, as reported by Adrian West, #MeteorWatch founder and curator, the first meteor activity has already been reported in the UK.

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The Quadrantid radiant (i.e., the point in the sky at which the meteors appear to radiate from) lies in the constellation of Boötes, below the handle of The Plough (a.k.a. the “Big Dipper”).

The meteor shower gets its name from Quadrans Muralis, a constellation that is no longer recognized by the International Astronomical Union. Quadrans Muralis was originally created in 1795, but is now split between Boötes and Draco.

This particular shower is thought to come from the husk of a long-extinct comet. Comet C/1490 Y1 was discovered by East Asian astronomers in the 15th Century, but it has disappeared. However, SETI Institute astronomer Peter Jenniskens has since discovered that the orbit of an asteroid named 2003 EH1 follows the path of the Quadrantids.

One possibility is that the meteors’ source is 2003 EH1 — a mile-wide asteroid that was once the nucleus of C/1490 Y1.

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So, for the opportunity to spot the remnants of a long-extinguished comet, wrap up warm and get outside late Tuesday and the early hours of Wednesday. Look toward the northeastern horizon and try to find the Big Dipper. You may spot the most spectacular meteor display of 2012… or you might not — such is the unpredictability of the Quadrantids.

UPDATE: In response to the huge interest in the Quadrantid meteor shower, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center has set up a live feed from an all-sky camera Huntsville, Ala.:

Remember to follow the #MeteorWatch hashtag on Twitter@VirtualAstro and other excited night sky observers will be tweeting the hell out of the event. For more information, take a look at MeteorWarch.org.

Image: A meteor streaks over a Bedouin tent near Amman (Corbis)

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