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Quadrantids - the fantastic phantom (1)

Published by Guardian on Thu, 12 Jan 2012

LOOKING for some light entertainment' Well, there's an extravaganza occurring on the northern horizon: And you won't have to leave home to enjoy it.Given post-subsidy fuel and transport costs, that's obviously good news! Or at least it could be 'provided you are lucky enough to actually catch the remainder of the Quadrantids performance.The Quadrantids is among the most spectacular of several yearly occurring light displays, known as meteor showers. It is the first major shower as well as the first astronomical event of 2012.During a meteor shower, the sky is alight with shooting stars. Whereas on any other night, an observer might see six to 10 streaking lights in an hour, showers produce vast increases in the sighting rate..In the case of the Quadrantids, the big days are the 3rd and the 4th, when an observer, who happens to be in the right place at the right time, can see as many as 120 meteors in 60 minutes.The display started around December 28 and, technically, will continue until the 7th. But according to meteor astronomers, the 5th is, for all intents and purposes, curtains ' although occasional episodes will keep occurring.So if you come out tonight, preferably in the wee morning hours, there might still be some action in the sky. But, like I've said, you'll need a little luck ' and quite a lot of patience. .In fact, the Quadrantids is more or less a phantom shower, despite its high performance rating among sky-watchers and astronomers. That's because it's the most difficult to see of all the major meteor showers, even under ideal viewing conditions.A meteor shower occurs when Earth passes through streams of flakes and pebbles of stony material, strewn behind a comet. Comet, which consist mainly of small stony particles frozen in water ice, release this material in their wake, as they pass around the Sun and gradually disintegrate.Streams of cometary debris ring the Sun, many of which lay directly in the path of our planet. Earth plows into these meteoroids, or is swarmed over by them, at the same point in its orbit each year ' hence the periodicity of the showers.The International Astronomical Union's Meteor Data Centre, for instance, lists 427 showers. Each of these events, occur when a stream of this debris collides with Earth and vaporize from atmospheric friction. The 'meteor' we see, is the light energy released during the sublimation of these particles.Earth's position and orientation in orbit (among other factors), and our vantage point on the planet's surface, when these collisions occur, determines how much ' if any ' of the resulting meteor shower we can see. .Note the forward motion of the meteors you see, and trace their paths backward. They will all appear to originate from roughly the same point in the sky. This is called the radiant; and it is usually pinpointed by associating the position with a constellation of stars of a bright object nearby. .The Quadrantids is something of an exception. It is name for Quadrans Moralis (Mural Quadrant), a constellation which the IAU discarded when it's reduced the number of star formations to 88.
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