The new year's first meteors
Bundle up, and watch shooting stars streak across the sky.
The Quadrantid meteor shower will put on its best show in the early morning of January 3. Observers who escape city lights and clouds can expect to see 100 meteors per hour.
Quadrantid meteors strike Earth's upper atmosphere at 90,000 mph. Dust-size particles are incinerated, which creates a column of incandescent gas we see as a meteor.
The shower's radiant the point from which all its meteors seem to originate lies in the constellation Boötes the Herdsman. This region once belonged to the now extinct constellation Quadrans Muralis the Mural Quadrant, hence the shower's name.
Sharp-eyed observers can see meteors from this shower between January 1 and 5, but the peak on the 3rd is sharp the numbers are low even a day away from maximum. This year, the Moon will pose no problem, setting before 9 P.M. local time.
An asteroid comes into view
Observers who brave winter's chill also have the opportunity to see the asteroid Vesta without optical aid. Vesta reaches opposition (opposite the Sun in our sky) January 5. Around this date, Vesta lies in Gemini the Twins and glows at magnitude 6.2 an easy target for binoculars from the suburbs and within range of the naked eye from a dark observing site.
With a diameter of about 320 miles, Vesta ranks third largest for asteroids in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Vesta's reflective surface makes it the brightest asteroid.
To find it, point your binoculars about one-third of the way from Delta to Epsilon Geminorum. The second-brightest point you'll see is Vesta. Once you're sure of its position through binoculars, try locating it without optical aid. To verify that you've found Vesta, make a quick sketch of the area and check it again in a day or two.
Also in the sky
On January 4, Earth makes its closest approach to the Sun for 2006. Our home planet reaches perihelion when it lies 91.4 million miles from the Sun.
Mars glimmers high in the southeast. On January 8, a waxing gibbous Moon stands beside the Red Planet.