The night sky offers a show unlike anything else. In this monthly series, we will explore some of the top viewing experiences for backyard astronomers.
Jan. 4 – Quadrantids meteor shower
The Quadrantids meteor shower, which peaks during early-January each year, is considered to be one of the best annual meteor showers. Most meteor showers have a two day peak, which makes catching sight of these other meteors more possible. The Quadrantids peak, on the other hand, is much shorter—only a few hours. (The reason the peak is so short is due to the shower’s thin stream of particles and the fact that the Earth crosses the stream at a perpendicular angle.)
During its peak, 60 to as many as 200 Quadrantid meteors can be seen per hour under perfect conditions. In 2021, the Moon will be very bright, which will make the shower more difficult to see.
Quadrantids are also known for their bright fireball meteors. Fireballs are larger explosions of light and color that can persist longer than an average meteor streak. This is due to the fact that fireballs originate from larger particles of material
The Quadrantids are best viewed in the Northern Hemisphere (this shower can also be seen at latitudes north of 51 degrees south) during the night and predawn hours. To view the Quadrantids, find an area well away from city or street lights. Come prepared for winter weather with a sleeping bag, blanket or lawn chair. Lie flat on your back with your feet facing northeast and look up, taking in as much of the sky as possible. In less than 30 minutes in the dark, your eyes will adapt and you will begin to see meteors. Be patient—the show will last until dawn, so you have plenty of time to catch a glimpse.
Where Do Meteors Come From?
Meteors come from leftover comet particles and bits from broken asteroids. When these objects come around the sun, the dust they emit gradually spreads into a dusty trail around their orbits. Every year the Earth passes through these debris trails, which allows the bits to collide with our atmosphere where they disintegrate to create fiery and colorful streaks in the sky.
Unlike most meteor showers which originate from comets, the Quadrantids originate from an asteroid: asteroid 2003 EH1. Asteroid 2003 EH1 takes 5.52 years to orbit the sun once. It is possible that 2003 EH is a “dead comet” or a new kind of object being discussed by astronomers called a “rock comet.”
Jan. 7 – Spica
The bright star Spica will appear to the left of the waning crescent Moon. The Moon will rise after Spica in the east at 12:15 a.m. CT, with Spica to the right, and the pair will appear to separate as the morning progresses, with morning twilight starting at 5:24 a.m. CT.
Jan. 10 – Antares
The bright star Antares will appear about 7 degrees to the right of the thin, waning crescent Moon. The Moon will rise after Antares in the east-southeast at 3:53 a.m. CT.
Jan. 20-21 – Mars
The bright planet Mars will appear above the half-full Moon. At around 5:17 p.m. CT, Mars will appear about 8 degrees to the upper right of the Moon. The pair will appear to shift gradually closer together until the Moon sets in the in the west-northwest on Thursday morning at 11:54 a.m. CT.
Jan. 23-24 – Aldebaran
The bright star Aldebaran will appear below the waxing gibbous Moon. As evening twilight ends at 5:21 p.m. CT Aldebaran will appear about 5 degrees below the Moon. The Moon will reach its high point for the night at 7:23 p.m. CT, and Aldebaran will set first in the west-northwest on Sunday morning at 2:28 a.m. CT.
Jan. 26-27 – Pollux
The bright star Pollux will appear near the waxing gibbous Moon. As evening twilight ends at 5:24 p.m. CT, Pollux will appear about 9 degrees to the lower left of the Moon. The Moon will reach its high point for the night at 9:59 p.m. CT with Pollux about 8 degrees to the upper left. Wednesday morning around 5:18 a.m. CT, Pollux will appear about 6 degrees above the Moon.
Watch the video below from the National Space Centre in Leicester, UK for a tour of the night sky in January from Hayley Noone, duty manager at the National Space Centre.
Spot the Station
Watch the International Space Station pass overhead from several thousand worldwide locations. It is the third brightest object in the sky and easy to spot if you know when to look up. Visible to the naked eye, it looks like a fast-moving plane only much higher and traveling thousands of miles an hour faster! Find out when you can spot the station.