If you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, you’re in luck! Tonight, turn your eyes towards the Big Dipper’s handle and look to the west of the bright star Arcturus. If the weather is favorable (and light pollution isn’t clouding the skies and obscuring your view), then you should be able to see some 80-200 meteors per an hour streaking through the sky. If you’ve never seen a meteor shower before, be sure to check it out this evening starting at midnight and carrying on until dawn. They are truly glorious events, and definitely worth a little lost shut-eye.
These meteors will blast into Earth’s atmosphere at about 90,000 miles per hour (144,800 km/h), but you’ve no need to fear any deadly cataclysms. The typical bright meteor is produced by a particle with a mass less than 1 gram…no larger than a pea. So even if the Quadrantids set the sky aglow, you’ve nothing to fear.
Although there will be a lot of meteors passing through the atmosphere, you’ll need a clear, dark sky to see more than just a few of the Quadrantids. And by “dark,” we mean at least 40 miles from the lights of a large city. But assuming that you can get out to the countryside, you won’t need a telescope or even binoculars. In fact, your eyes will be your best bet because they provide the largest field of view. if you use a telescope, chances are, you will miss quite a few meteors because they pass outside of your periphery.
For a little bit of added fun, keep a running tally of how many meteors you see. Individual often post their tallies online, and you will be able to compare your numbers with others from across the country. Ultimately, this will give you a good bit of information about the viewing in your area.
Meteor showers are caused by the Earth passing through the broken up remnants of asteroids or comets, and they are one of the best ways to visibly see the speed of the Earth orbiting the Sun (the Earth wouldn’t be crossing paths with the meteors if it was standing still). The Quadrantid meteor shower originated from a near-Earth asteroid named 2003 EH1. Although astronomers classify 2003 EH1 as an asteroid, most believe it to be a dead comet. The shower was first recognized in 1839.
Just how close are the meteors when you see them? Meteors become visible at an average height of 55 miles (90 km). Nearly all burn up before they reach an altitude of 50 miles (80 km). Moreover, to be visible, a meteor must be within about 120 miles (200 kilometers) of an observer. So ultimately, the bright glare of light that flashes across the sky and looks rather enormous is really a tiny, pea-sized piece of a long dead asteroid that is flashing off in a final farewell, burning-up miles and miles away. It’s kind of a sobering thought.
For more information on comets and meteors, check out Bad Astronomy by Phil Plait.