I awoke this morning shortly after 5:00 and dressed warmly to see the first meteor shower of 2009, the Quadrantids. I had just been reading about this shower the night before and it sounded like it would have an impressive peak at 5:00 pacific time. The conditions looked good from inside my house, so I ventured to my backyard and looked high into the north-east. It took only a minute or two before I was rewarded for my efforts: a pinpoint of light streaked across the sky for an instant. I was energized and focused and saw a particularly bright one a minute later. In my brief 15 minute session, I saw about 8 meteors. By then the first light of dawn was beginning to color the eastern sky and I was ready to hop back into bed!
Meteors are a delight from my point of view for a variety of reasons. They are high-speed astronomical events, those rare things you can encounter in the sky that are fast and require you to pay attention, like a total solar eclipse. Meteors are quick and yet they leave the impression of a long trail in your eye (sometimes the long streak is real, but often it is just a visual memory). My favorite thing is that they are silent. I always expect them to make a sound like an exploding firework, but despite the fact that we are witnessing mass vaporizing in an explosion of heat and brightness, nearly all meteors make no sound. The occasional fireball that is of massive proportion (such as a recent fireball over Canada) are the extremely rare spectacles that might create some local sound.
Meteor showers are annual events that are specifically tied to a time of year and a location in the sky from which the meteors all appear to radiate. For 2009, I am going to make a point of seeing more of these. Typically meteor showers peak after midnight and are best seen when there is no interference from the moon. So for the 10-12 major showers that occur in a year, the phase of the moon will make some of them easier to see than others. Of course, weather plays a role like it does for any other astronomical viewing - the clearer the atmosphere, the better the viewing. And of course the darker the sky, the more meteors you will see. Last night was a chance alignment of nearly all these factors: no clouds, clear atmosphere and no moon. So I jumped at the opportunity to enjoy the sight of the Quadrantid meteors. Even in the city lights of San Francisco the conditions were favorable enough to see some.
The informative astronomy website EarthSky has an excellent summary of the major meteor showers in 2009. Mark your calendar and plan to see a few - they are truly beautiful to witness.