The years first meteor shower

There is one aspect of the sky visible this week that you wouldn't have seen five, four, or even three hundred years ago: a meteor shower.

In the Northern Hemisphere, there are eight major meteor showers each year, 'major' being defined as ones that produce at least 20 meteors per hour during their peak. The Quadrantids, which peak each year between January 3 and 4, is one of those. First reported during the nineteenth century, this brief, one-night display is testimony to how circumstances can change in our tiny corner of the universe.

The Quadrantid shower is one of the more unpredictable meteoric displays. It has been known to produce as few as a dozen to as many as 250 meteors an hour. The usual number cited is 95, although it is doubtful you will see that many, unless you are observing from a dark location during the shower's short-lived peak. During the latter part of the twentieth century, some veteran meteor watchers believed the shower was intensifying. More observations will be needed, however, to confirm this or not. What is certain is that you never know what you're going to get with the Quadrantids, so perhaps it's worth a look.

The shower gets its name from the now retired constellation Quadrans Muralis (a mariner's quadrant depicted in a mural), which lay in the region between Ursa Major and Bootes (closer to the latter). Today, the point in the sky from which the meteors appear to emanate is located in Bootes.

In early January, this conical-shaped constellation rises in the northeast around midnight and is well up by 2 a.m. You can't miss its most prominent member, Arcturus, which is distinctly reddish and twinkles violently when near the horizon. Arcturus is the second-brightest star in the northern night sky. To observe the shower, go outside after midnight - say between 2 and 3 a.m. - and face northeast. Fairly dark skies are necessary because the Quadrantids are known to be fast and faint with a bluish color to their trails. Although it goes without saying, bundle up against the cold. Sleeping bags or a reclining chair help increase your comfort level, as does the proverbial cup of hot cocoa.

In deciding if you want to get up that early in the morning or not, you would do well to consider the old meteor-watcher's proverb: 'You may see a few, you may see many, but stay in your bed and you won't see any.'

Also this week:

• Fomalhaut sets in the southwest soon after the Sun. (See September 13 -

• Variable star Mira in Cetus crosses the meridian around 7 o'clock.

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