In just a few hours the peak of the first meteor shower of 2011 will begin – the Quadrantids. Where did these mysterious meteors begin their life and how can you observe one yourself? Then step inside…
Beginning each New Year and lasting for nearly a week, the Quadrantid Meteor Shower sparkles across the night sky for nearly all viewers around the world. Its radiant belongs to an extinct constellation once known as Quadran Muralis, but any meteors will seem to come from the general direction of bright Arcturus and Bootes. This is a very narrow stream, which may have once belonged to a portion of the Aquarids, but recent scientific data points to a what may have been a cosmic collision. According the most recent data, the Quandrantid meteors may have been formed about five centuries ago when a near-Earth asteroid named 2003 EH1 and a comet smashed into one another. Historic records from ancient China put comet C/1490 Y1 in the path of probability.
As Jupiter‘s gravity continues to perturb the stream, another 400 years may mean this shower will become as extinct as the constellation for which it was once known, but we aren’t out of the running just yet. “Peaking in the wee morning hours of Tuesday, Jan. 4, the Quads have a maximum rate of about 100 per hour (varies between 60 and 200),” says Bill Cooke of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office. “What makes this year so special is that the Moon is New on the night of the peak, so there will be no interference from moonlight.”
As exciting as it may seem, there are a few problems associated with observing the Quadrantid meteor shower. The first is the weather, because this northern hemisphere show occurs during a notoriously cold season making observations uncomfortable at best. The second is the brevity of the activity itself. Because Earth intersects the debris orbit of 2003 EH1 at a perpendicular angle, we zip right through the trail. That’s why the shower activity is so fast and slightly unpredictable. A third consideration is the high probability of cloud cover – but take heart… NASA has you covered!
“Got clouds? No problem.” says SpaceWeather. “You can stay inside and listen to the Quadrantids. Tune into SpaceWeather Radio for a live audio stream from the Air Force Space Surveillance Radar. When a Quadrantid passes over the facility, you will hear a “ping” caused by the radar’s powerful transmitter echoing from the meteor’s ion trail. During the shower’s peak, the soundtrack is guaranteed to entertain.
So where and when to look? “You can start watching after 2:30am in the North to North East look between the handle of the Big Dipper -Ursa Major and the Constellation of Bootes or the Kite shaped constellation, this is the radiant location as the Meteors will appear to radiate from this general area.” says professional astrophotographer, John Chumack. “Or after 2:30am simply look between the North Star and bright star Arcturus in the East. The Quadrantid Meteors will appear to be coming from this general area of the sky. There is no moon present during this year’s shower, so you can watch all night if you like without moonlight interfering, but the best time will be after 2:30am. As the night goes on the Big Dipper, Bootes and Arcturus climb higher into the sky, so keep watching because the number of meteors usually picks up after 2:30am and gets better through 6:00am. as Earth rotates into the stream. Meteors can appear anywhere in the sky, so look in all directions of the sky as the Quadrantid radiant reaches straight over head. The Quadrantid Meteors are rather fast movers. They enter the atmosphere at about 90,000 to 120,000mph, and can have some impressive long trails.”
Will the Quadrantid Meteor Shower live up to its expectations? No one knows for sure… But we’ll be watching!
Many thanks to John Chumack of Galactic Images for his inspiring photo and to NASA for the locator chart. We thank you so much!