Light years ago, after my wife and I spoke our vows and exchanged rings at our wedding, the singers we’d hired sang the song “Sugar in the Morning”. We walked down the aisle smiling to the tune of “Sugar in the mornin’, sugar in the evenin’, sugar at suppertime. Be my little sugar and love me all the time.”
You can have spoonfuls of astronomical sugar tonight and Wednesday morning starting with a close conjunction of Jupiter and the waxing half moon. As twilight gives way to darkness this evening, face south and look up high. Jupiter will hang directly below the 9-day-old moon. The planet is currently due south around 7 p.m. local time. Through a telescope you’ll see the moons Io, Europa and Ganymede in that order lined up east of the planet. Callisto will be all by itself west of Jupiter’s blazing disk.
In the wee hours of Wednesday, conditions are nearly ideal for a great display of the new year’s first meteor shower, the Quadrantids (kwah-DRAN-tids) across much of the U.S. and Canada.
The “Quads” appear to radiate from a point in the sky below the Handle of the Big Dipper, which stands high in the northeastern sky at the time. This area was once home to the now defunct constellation Quadrans Murealis (mural quadrant), the origin of the shower’s name.
Brief but intense, the shower typically peels off around 100 meteors per hour under ideal conditions. What distinguishes the Quadrantids from the likes of the Perseids or Geminids is how brief the period of peak activity is. It typically lasts just an hour or two, so each year only a particular region of the world is favored; for the rest, the radiant either hasn’t risen or it’s daytime.
Shower maximum is expected Wednesday morning Jan. 4 between 1:00 and 2:00 a.m. CST (2-3 a.m. Eastern). At those times, the radiant will be up in the eastern sky and for the Eastern half of the U.S. and Canada – ideal for catching the largest number of meteors. Counts could range from a conservative to more than a 100 per hour. The waxing gibbous moon will put a small dent in festivities, but it’s low in the west and setting around that time, so I don’t expect much interference.
The shower peaks for the West Coast between 11 p.m. and midnight Jan. 3. While the time is easier on the working man and woman, the radiant will not yet have risen, so you won’t see nearly as many meteors. However, you might catch a few Earth-grazing meteors, the ones that climb up from below the horizon and make long trails as they skirt through the upper atmosphere. One of my favorite meteor moments was an Earth-grazing Leonid a few Novembers back. It rose slowly from the northeast horizon and cut a path almost 90 degrees long before finally succumbing to burnout.
For everyone else, except southern hemisphere observers who are too far south for the radiant to rise above the horizon, the American Meteor Society predicts about 25 meteors per hour between moonset and dawn (approx. 4-6 a.m.).
U.S. and Canadian observers should really try to catch the Quadrantids even if it is the coldest time of year. Having maximum coincide with the radiant point being above the horizon is a a rare treat. Observers in the Eastern half of the U.S. can start watching as early as midnight-1 a.m. while those in the West can begin around 11 p.m. on the 3rd.
Put on a few layers of clothing, tuck hand warmers in your boots and gloves, face northeast and have at it! It may even be clear for a change. I observed one Quadrantid shower back in the early1980s and have great memories of several dozen meteors shooting this way and that until the first light of dawn. (UPDATE: Click HERE for a post-meteor shower report.)
Good news again for the GRAIL moon mission – the GRAIL-B probe arrived yesterday and successfully joined its sister GRAIL-A in orbit around the moon. The orbits of both will be refined in the coming weeks with the science mission planned to start in March.