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Quadrantids meteor shower peaks tonight, ringing in new year with cosmic fireworks

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Night skies were ablaze with fireworks on New Year’s Eve as the Big Island welcomed 2024. Tonight, that man-made light show is being followed up by another nighttime display, this time from the cosmos.

The Quadtrantids meteor shower peaks tonight. If you can, don’t miss this cosmic fireworks show that’s ringing in the new year. (Photo from NASA)

The Quadrantids meteor shower, which NASA says is considered to be one of the best meteor showers every year, has been active since Dec. 26. It peaks tonight, just before midnight, with the possibility of producing up to 120 bright fireball meteors streaking across the center of the sky every hour through early Thursday morning.

“The shower’s peak is strong but short — only about six hours between Jan. 3 and 4 from 11 p.m. tonight to 5 a.m. tomorrow,” said the W.M. Keck Observatory, which is headquartered in Waimea on the Big Island, in a Wednesday morning Facebook post.

The observatory added that skywatchers should look north toward the Big Dipper to find the Quadrantids.

Emily Peavy, an education specialist at the Gemini Observatory and ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center, both in Hilo on the Big Island, said keen observers should be able to see up to two shooting stars each minute during the peak of the meteor showers.

That’s just an estimate, because it is difficult to guarantee just how many shooting stars will be produced. NASA says from 60 to as many as 200 meteors could be seen per hour under perfect conditions.

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Quadrantids are known for their bright fireballs, produced by larger explosions of light and color that persist longer than the average meteor streak. This is because they originate from larger rocks and chunks of ice left behind by asteroid 2003 EH1 as it passes through the inner solar system on its 5.52-year orbit of the sun.

The meteor shower is caused when the Earth passes through that cloud of debris left behind in its orbit. The particles burn up as they fall through the atmosphere, creating the tell-tale streaks of light.

Peavy said as you watch the shooting stars, pay attention to any unique colors in the fireballs.

“Just as fireworks use different chemicals to create different colors, the different minerals inside of the space rocks falling through the atmosphere can create different colored tails,” she said.

The Quandtrantids meteor shower peaks tonight between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. This photo of the fireball meteors, with their tell-tale streaks, was posted Wednesday on Facebook by the W.M. Keck Observatory on the Big Island. (W.M. Keck Observatory photo by Jeff Sullivan)

The Quadrantids are unique in that they are produced by an asteroid. Typically, meteor showers are produced from debris left behind by comets, which Peavy called “dirty snowballs,” as they careen through the inner solar system once every few decades or longer, depending on the comet.

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The asteroid is only about 2 miles across and a fairly recent discovery, on March 6, 2003.

“This asteroid is still being studied by astronomers and could be considered a ‘dead comet’ or ‘rock comet’ which has lost most of its ice,” Peavy said.

Interestingly, the Quadrantids, which appear to radiate from an obsolete constellation called Quadrans Muralis, were first seen in 1825. While Quadrans Muralis is no longer a recognized constellation, it was long enough to be the source of the showers moniker.

For the best viewing, Peavy offered several tips:

  • Find a place that is clear, with few clouds, and dark, with little to no light pollution.
  • Face toward the northeast and, if possible, lay flat on the ground so you can see the entire sky.
  • Allow at least 20 minutes of looking at the dark sky so your eyes can fully adjust to the dark.
  • Do not look at your phone. Its blue light can instantly ruin your night vision.

Viewing conditions will be better this year than last year, as a waning crescent moon that will be only about 47% illuminated will make for darker skies during the Quadrantids peak, according to the W.M. Keck Observatory.

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But seeing the shooting stars might be difficult in some areas, depending on where you are in the state.

The National Weather Service is forecasting mostly cloudy skies tonight in the Hilo area, with a 60% chance of showers after 1 a.m. Skies are expected to be mostly cloudy also in the Kailua-Kona area tonight on the west side of the Big Island.

It will be the same for the Līhuʻe and Honolulu areas tonight. The best place to see the meteor shower in the islands, at least at sea level, might be in the Kahului, Maui, area, which is forecast to have partly cloudy skies.

To check your local weather forecast, click here.

If you can’t or don’t have a chance to see the Quadrantids during their peak, don’t fret. The shower will be visible until Jan. 16, albeit likely at a lower frequency of shooting stars.

To find out more about what skywatchers can expect in January, check out ‘Imiloa’s Sky Watch for this month and watch the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s “What’s Up: January 2024 Skywatching Tips from NASA” video above.

Nathan Christophel
Nathan Christophel has more than 20 years of experience in journalism, starting out as a reporter and working his way up to become a copy editor and page designer, most recently at the Hawaii Tribune-Herald in Hilo.
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