A centuries-long journey will end tonight for hundreds of comet fragments as they smash into Earth’s atmosphere at 90,000 miles per hour, burning up 50 miles above Mother Earth’s surface.
The result: the Quadrantid meteor shower, the first star show of the ostensibly apocalyptic 2012.
Though not as famous as their cousins the Orionids and the Geminids, the Quadrantids are among the best and brightest celestial shows of the calendar year, astronomical observers say. They can be caught for a few hours only in what NASA calls a “brief, beautiful show” during the overnight of January 3 to 4, peaking at 2 a.m. on the fourth. Unlike with previous shows, the meteors will not be obscured by an abundance of moonlight.
“The Quadrantids have a maximum rate of about 100 per hour, varying between 60–200,” NASA said in a media release. “The waxing gibbous moon will set around 3 a.m. local time, leaving about two hours of excellent meteor observing before dawn. It’s a good thing, too, because unlike the more famous Perseid and Geminid meteor showers, the Quadrantids only last a few hours—it’s the morning of January 4, or nothing.”
For those unable to see the shower—it will only be visible in the Northern Hemisphere, though that includes all of Turtle Island—NASA has announced that the Marshall Space Flight Center will set up a live, all-sky camera feed of the skies over Huntsville, Alabama.
“The weather looks very clear for tonight in Huntsville, and the feed will go live late this afternoon,” NASA said in its Tuesday January 3 statement, urging viewers to check back to its site for a gander at the embedded Ustream feed.
Originating from an asteroid called 2003 EH1, this set of shooting stars was first seen in 1825, according to NASA. They’re possibly part of a comet that broke apart centuries ago, NASA said, with these meteors being the small debris from the fragmentation. The shower is named after the no-longer-recognized constellation of Quadrans Muralis, so designated in 1795 by the French astronomer Jerome Lalande, NASA said.
“After hundreds of years orbiting the sun, they will enter our atmosphere at 90,000 mph, burning up 50 miles above Earth’s surface—a fiery end to a long journey!” NASA’s release said.
This one sounds worth staying awake for, so grab a cup of coffee, lean back, and enjoy the show.