For stargazers, high hopes of meteor shower

January 03, 1992

If the skies are clear before dawn Saturday -- though chances of that are looking dimmer by the hour -- we should be in for a brilliant display of lights in what scientists say will be the best meteor shower of the year.

"There could be at least 100 meteors an hour," said Todd Ullery, a producer at the Maryland Science Center's Davis Planetarium.

And we'll have the added advantage of only a sliver of moon in the sky, which means the sky will be darker and the meteors should show up better.

Unfortunately, the best seats for this show aren't in the house. And with the weather forecast calling for rain, you may have to head west to see the bits of debris from an ancient comet flame out as they enter the Earth's atmosphere.

The Quadrantid meteor shower, named for an old constellation, occurs every year within a day of Jan. 4 as the Earth's orbit crosses a comet's path.

As the comet, which could have passed hundreds of years ago, traveled in its long, elliptical orbit around the sun, bits of debris slowed down and dropped off, Mr. Ullery said. But the debris stayed in the same orbit and eventually spread out over the entire orbit.

Every year about this time, the Earth crosses the path of that orbit. The meteors, Mr. Ullery said, "aren't hitting us; we're hitting them."

The best places to watch for meteors are in rural areas where there are fewer lights to interfere. But if you're in the city, you still can see some of the shower by turning your back to the brightest lights and looking toward the darkest part of the sky.

Although meteors can occur anywhere, you generally are better off looking to the north and the east. There is no need for binoculars or a telescope, Mr. Ullery said: "They only limit your view."

And the flash of light rarely lasts longer than a half second.

The best time to look for the meteors is between midnight and dawn. And although this is one of the year's best meteor showers, it's also one of the shortest.

"This shower peaks very quickly because the debris is tightly packed," Mr. Ullery said.

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