Sky offers its own fireworks tonight
Published: Monday, January 2, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 1, 2006 at 10:12 p.m.
The first meteor shower of 2006 is expected to light the sky over Gainesville around midnight tonight.
Local star-gazers recommend getting out of town into darker areas to watch the Quadrantid - "a group of stars in the constellation Draco from which the shower appears to radiate," according to Merriam-Webster's Dictionary. The meteor shower is expected to be one of the most visible celestial shows of the year in Florida.
"All the meteor showers are interesting, but the most interesting have more events per-unit of time," said associate scientist Francisco Reyes, the director of the University of Florida's Teaching Observatories.
Tonight's Quadrantid rate "is kind of high," he added. "It's expected to be 120 events per-hour, and that's not too bad. It's one of the best this coming year."
The viewing should be especially good thanks to Mother Nature.
"One of the things that keeps us from being able to see a meteor shower well is moonlight, but the moon will not be anywhere near full, so it will be a good opportunity to see it," said John Oliver, an associate professor of astronomy at UF.
The meteor shower is actually made of particles not much larger than grains of sand. The material left behind by a comet creates friction with air as it falls toward Earth at about 25 miles per second, Oliver said, and the friction causes the particles to heat and glow.
The shower should be easy to see from midnight to dawn, he said, noting, "You don't need a telescope or binoculars. All you really need to do is get out of town and look away from the lights."
Though the meteor shower is expected to be one of the most active in 2006, there's plenty more excitement expected from the skies this year. On March 29, there's a solar eclipse predicted over the Mediterranean. The event has excited some Gainesville astronomers so much that they've actually booked a cruise to watch the eclipse from the sea.
Reyes said another eclipse is expected over the Atlantic Ocean between South America and the tip of Africa on Sept. 22.
In Gainesville, a lunar eclipse will be visible March 14, but viewers will have to look carefully to notice, he added.
"The moon is going to get a bit darker, but it's not going to go through the darkest part of the shadow, so you'll have to look very, very carefully."
An event Oliver is anticipating this year is the return of the spacecraft "Stardust." Expected to parachute to the Earth's surface in mid-January, the craft collected particles from comets in space. A similar mission failed last year when the parachute failed to open on the spacecraft Genesis, so if Stardust is a success, it will be the first.
"Some of my students have gone off to be involved in these space missions. They work on it for four or five years, then wait four or five years more for it to come back. It's so exciting if it works, and so disappointing if it doesn't," Oliver said.
Reyes is looking forward to viewings of Saturn in January and Jupiter in March at the Teaching Observatory, which has public viewing sessions on Fridays during the school year.
Neither Reyes nor Oliver expressed much excitement over tonight's meteor shower. To astronomers who have spent their lives staring at the skies, it's "nothing that is going to be spectacular," Reyes said, recalling several years ago, when there were meteor showers peaking with more than 1,000 events per hour.
But both agreed the celestial show is worth watching.
The only meteor shower that will be comparable to the Quadrantid in 2006, the Geminid, is nearly a year away. It's expected to peak Dec. 14.
Tiffany Pakkala can be reached at 338-3111 or pakkalt@ gvillesun.com.
On the Web AT A GLANCE
For information on the major meteor showers of the year, go to http://www.ams meteors.org/ showers.html# major.
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