By Boris Pavlishev
The annual Quadrantid meteor shower will occur overnight on January 3 and 4. The Quadrantids (QUA) are one of the heaviest meteor showers. If you watch the northern part of the sky dome you will see meteor flares twice a minute.
According to a popular belief, if you wish upon a shooting star your wish will come true.
During a meteor shower a number of meteors are observed to radiate from one point of the night sky. The point from where the Quadrantid meteors appear to radiate is located within the extinct constellation Quadrans Muralis. On modern star charts, this radiant is located where the constellations Hercules, Boötes, and Draco meet in the sky. Meteors, which are small parts of a tail of the disintegrated comet, move along their orbit and cross the Earth orbit once a year, Vladimir Surdin, astrophysicist of the Steinberg Astronomy institute under the Moscow State University, says.
“Approaching the Sun comets lose their outer shell. Evaporation of gas occurs and the comet loses dust layers. When those small dust particles enter Earth atmosphere at a speed of more than 40 km per second and their air friction causes meteor flares. None of those particles reaches Earth and that is why they do not pose danger to us of aircraft.”
With every meteor shower the Earth receives several tons of comet matter which is later discovered in the Antarctic ice in the form of small burned balls. By studying these traces it is possible to determine the structure of the areas of the Solar System where comets were formed. Even meteor flares are of great scientific values Vladimir Surdin says.
“Flares of comet particles show their chemical composition. By taking photos of the spectrum with lines of different chemical components we learn what these dust particles were made of and respectively the composition of their parent body.”
Before comet particles burn in the atmosphere they pass through the route of the International Space Station (ISS) and numerous satellites. An attack of a meteor shower leaves microscopic hollow spots on the skin of ISS, Vladimir Surdin continues.
“No cases have been registered yet when a spacecraft skin was seriously damaged by small meteorites. But they damage the illuminators – they became less transparent and the solar power panels start generating less electricity. That is why it is better for the ISS not to encounter them and to make a turn to let most of the particles pass it by.”
The intensity of Quadrantid meteor showers is different every year. It is difficult to say how strong the shower will be this time because comet matter is distributed along its orbit very unevenly, Igor Volkov, astrophysicist of the Steinberg Astronomy institute under the Moscow State University, says.
“Usually the point where the core of the comet nucleus was has a condensation of particles. The Earth does not always cross the same part of the shower. In case of a maximum close-in of the Earth and the former comet nucleus the heaviest meteor showers occur.”
This was the case in 1966 with a Leonid meteor shower when up to 30 stars flared up every second. That meteor shower made it into textbooks. Though, such phenomena are very rare. Gradually shooting star showers such as Quadrantid, Leonid and others (about 20 are known) will get weaker. This decline process will take hundreds and even thousands years. But that does not mean that our remote descendants won’t have an opportunity to watch meteor showers. New comets will close the Sun losing its matter and this means that new meteor rains will emerge.