Catch a shooting star

The first meteor shower peaks on Jan. 3–4

If you are still disappointed over the poor visibility of the New Year's Day fireworks, Mother Nature will try to help compensate. The first major celestial event of the year is the Quadrantids, a meteor shower that always occurs at the start of January. The peak this year is Jan. 3 at night into the morning of Jan. 4, and some 60 meteors per hour should pass through the sky. This shower runs to Jan. 12, but with fewer meteors.

The viewing of this shower won't be as good for at least two years, as the moon is only a crescent and is not overpowering the dimmer lights in the sky. Mountains offer good visibility. The best viewing is about two hours before midnight. No special equipment is needed, and the best way to see the meteors is lying on your back, so a blanket or sleeping bag is optional. They will come from the direction of the constellation Boötes, close to the Big Dipper.

Once you are out looking, the bright light near the crescent moon in the evening of Jan. 3 is Venus. Mars is also visible, and Neptune can be seen nearby with a telescope.

Meteors are sometimes called shooting stars, as they seem to be stars falling out of the sky, but that is just an illusion. The meteor shower happens when the Earth is hit by meteoroids, small rocks in space ranging from the size of a grain of sand to one meter wide. Most meteor showers come from fragments of comets. The meteoroid become a meteor when it enters the Earth's atmosphere and burns up due to friction, traveling at about 72,000 km/h. Most burn up completely, leaving a lit ionized trail behind them. An estimated 15,000 tons of meteoroids and space dust enter Earth's atmosphere each year. Any meteor that hits the Earth is called a meteorite. And any meteoroid that is smaller than a grain of sand is a micrometeoroid.

The Quadrantids are the first meteor shower of the year. The next is the Lyrids, visible April 16–26, followed by the Eta Aquarids on May 5–6. The Perseids are one of the larger showers, peaking Aug. 11–13. The Draconids are Oct. 7–8 and the Orionids make their best showing Oct. 21–22, followed by the Leonids in mid-November. The Geminids peak around Dec. 13–14, and the Ursids around Dec. 22–23.

There are other events in the sky this year. A partial eclipse of the moon will be visible Feb. 11, when the moon passes through the penumbra of the earth, but not the full shadow. It will be visible from all of Europe and Africa, among other places.

A partial lunar eclipse with a section of the moon in full shadow will be visible Aug. 7 at moonrise. Solar eclipses on Feb. 26 and Aug. 11 will not be visible at all from the Czech Republic.

There is just one supermoon, on Dec. 3, when the moon makes its closest approach and will appear larger than normal.

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