by William J. Bechaver
Many of us will be out late Saturday night, ringing in the New Year, blowing horns and shooting off fireworks. But this year, the universe has some fireworks of its own to offer.
While outside whooping it up, look skyward, to the north east, and you may catch sight of the most spectacular display of the evening.
The Quadrantid Meteor Shower is ramping up right now, and promises to be putting on quite a show for New Years Eve. So, while gamboling out and about to celebrate the New Year, watch the heavens. You may see more than one of the fast fireballs every minute!
The Quadrantids don’t actually peak until a couple of nights later, on the early morning of Tuesday 3 January. But you should be treated to quite a show for your New Year celebration!
But the highlight of the show actually begins a bit earlier, on the evening of Monday 2 January. Just after sunset, go out in the early evening, and look to the west. The good viewing will begin just after five, while the sky is still light.
Locate the beautiful crescent moon in the deepening blue sky. Just above it, and a little to the left, lies Mars. They will be less than a single degree apart, forming a beautiful pair. Just below, glimmers brilliant Venus, just off a pairing of its own with the Moon the preceding evening.
As the evening progresses, the minute distance between the Moon and Mars will actually decrease, until they are separated by less than two-tenths of a degree, or less than half the width of the Moon’s disk!
With a good pair of binoculars, you may be able to pick out faint Neptune. If you aim your binoculars or telescope directly at Mars, the brightest object to the lower right of the red planet is Neptune, a bluish point of light, that is actually the giant ice planet, 2.8 billion miles from Earth.
You will have about five hours to watch the progression as the Moon sinks slowly toward the western horizon, and the grouping finally descends from view just before ten o’clock. It will be a spectacular sighting of a rare pairing in the evening sky.
Then, with the Moon saying goodnight, it leaves the sky nice and dark for act three. Turn and look to the north-east. The Big Dipper will just be rising to prominence in the northern sky. Look in its direction, and that should be the focal point for the Quadrantid Meteors, displaying peak activity that night, and into the early morning hours of Tuesday 3 January.
At its peak, the meteor shower should offer two meteors a minute, or about 120 an hour. Remember, there is nothing regular about a meteor shower, so several minutes could pass without a sighting, then you could enjoy a burst of several in a single minute. So, be persistent, focusing on the area of the sky near the handle of The Big Dipper, as it rotates into view and climbs higher into the north-east.
With cold and crisp evenings, the skies are steady and dark, for perfect planet viewing, and even better for meteor showers. So, go out the first three or four days of the New Year, and enjoy the show, of planetary encounters, and meteoric fireworks provided by our ever fascinating universe!
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— William J. Bechaver is the Director of SPACE •· Spanish Peaks Amateur Cosmos Enthusiasts [SPACE] the premier Astronomical Society for Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico.