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Two Sparkling Meteor Showers Will Bookend the New Year

Sky-watchers should be on the lookout in coming weeks for the Ursid and Quadrantid showers

The Ursid meteor shower appears to radiate from the Little Dipper (top right). (Rick Fischer/Masterfile/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

The year 2015 may be winding down, but for the next few weeks, the skies will be heating up. For some stargazers, there’s no better way to celebrate the New Year than by checking out the two meteor showers that bookend the weeks before and after January 1: the Ursid meteor shower around the December solstice, and the first annual meteor shower of 2016, the Quadrantids.

As far as meteor showers go, the Ursids are considered fairly minor; the Geminids that peak in the early nights of the month tend to steal the show. Still, past viewers have seen up to 100 meteors streaking through the night sky in a single hour, Bruce McClure writes for EarthSky.org. Just don’t expect the skies to be filled with shooting stars—usually, the Ursids tend to come in bursts of five to ten meteors per hour.

While people have recorded some annual meteor showers for centuries, astronomers only discovered the Ursids about 100 years ago. Once you know what you’re looking for, they’re pretty easy to find. As the name suggests, the Ursid meteor shower originates from the Ursa Minor constellation, also called the Little Dipper.

While the meteors are usually best seen right before dawn, when their radiant point is at its highest above the horizon, people in the Northern Hemisphere should have a chance to see them throughout the night, Joe Rao wrote for Space.com. However, you might have to work extra hard to see the Ursids this year: For the first time in decades, there will be a full moon on Christmas that will probably block out all but the brightest meteors. If you’re willing to stick through the night, though, you could get a lucky glimpse. The first meteors should start showing up on December 19 and 20, and the shower will peak before dawn on December 23, McClure reports.

If searching for the Ursids isn’t your thing, just wait a few weeks and you’ll be treated to the Quadrantids—the first meteor shower of 2016. According to McClure and Deborah Byrd of EarthSky.org, the early morning hours of January 4 should hold the best views of the Quadrantids, which can produce between 50 and 100 meteors an hour. However, stargazers will want to camp out to catch this one: McClure writes that the Quadrantids peak very quickly, lasting only a few hours and only visible from certain parts of the planet. If you’re living in northwestern Europe, northeastern North America or Greenland, you should have a pretty good view of the show.

Compared to other meteor showers, the Quadrantids are kind of odd for a few reasons, including the fact that the constellation they are named after doesn’t formally exist anymore. When the Quarantids were discovered in 1825, they seemed to originate from a constellation called Quadrans Muralis. But in 1922, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) drew up a revised list of modern constellations, and Quadrans Muralis didn’t make the cut, Elizabeth Howell wrote for Space.com.

And unlike other meteor showers, which are usually caused by the fragments of comets, the Quadrantids are caused by asteroid fragments sometimes called “rock comets.” The Quadrantids’ 1.2-mile-wide parent asteroid, 2003 EH1, was discovered 12 years ago, and to further complicate the matter, some experts believe that it could be a remnant of a comet that was last recorded by Chinese astronomers in 1490, Howell writes.

Whatever the Quadrantids’ origins, if you are lucky enough to catch this brief meteor shower, you should be in for a fun show.

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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