New Year begins with a treat for stargazers

New Year begins with a treat for stargazers

Stargazers could be in for a treat in tonight's northern sky.

Depending on the timing, the Earth will be moving through the debris field of a large space rock, possibly an asteroid or defunct comet, resulting in an impressive meteor shower called the Quadrantids.

"Comets come into the solar system and start to evaporate," said UNLV Assistant Physics professor Jason Steffen. "You get a bunch of dust grains that are left as debris in their trail and when the earth plows through that debris field, the little dust particles enter the atmosphere and you get streaks across the sky, and that's what makes a meteor shower."

While it might seem hard to believe something so small could produce so much light, Steffen says it's more to do with what's happening in front of the particle, ranging in size from a grain of sand to a pea.

"The brightness you see isn't the object heating up and glowing because of friction," said Steffen. "It's actually called 'ram' pressure. It compresses the air in front of it, and the air heats up and that's what glows when they come into the atmosphere."

Scientists recently figured out the source of the Quadrantids meteor shower in 2005.

According to Steffen, "the progenitor for this particular meteor shower doesn't have a very interesting name. It's just a catalog name and it's only been since 2005 that we've actually had a good idea that this rock might be the actual progenitor for this particular shower."

Timing will be critical in the number of meteors produced during this shower, which could be dozens per minute.

When it peaks, the other side of the Earth will be pointed forward as our planet moves through the debris field.

Our chance at a spectacular show will depend on how much of the debris field remains as the Earth turns, and our part of the planet is facing forward.

Another variable, according to Steffen, is the Quadrantids debris trail is smaller than those of comets.

"A difference between this and some of the famous ones like the Perseids is this one has a fairly narrow peak, and that it only peaks for a few hours," said Steffen, "whereas the other meteor showers, I guess, their debris field is a bit larger, so their peak last longer in these other meteor showers."

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