Work Those Quads: Our Guide to the 2015 Quadrantid Meteors

Don't fear the moonlight... Credit and copyright: John Chumack.

Quick… what’s the only major meteor shower named after a defunct constellation?  If you said the January Quadrantids, you’d be correct, as this often elusive but abrupt meteor shower is set to peak this coming weekend early in 2015.

And we do mean early, as in the night of January 3rd going into the morning of January 4th. This is a bonus, as early January means long dark nights for northern hemisphere observers. But the 2015 Quadrantids also has two strikes going against them however: first, the Moon reaches Full just a day later on January 5th, and second, January also means higher than average prospects for cloud cover (and of course, frigid temps!) for North American observers.

Jan 4th 3AM local. Starry Night Education Software.
The rising radiant of the Quads on the morning of January 4th at 3AM local. Note that the Moon and Jupiter are on the scene as well. Created using Starry Night Education software.

Don’t despair, however. In meteor shower observing as in hockey, you miss 100% of the shots that you don’t take.

Sorry for the sports analogy. The radiant for the Quadrantids is located in the modern day constellation of Draco near the Hercules-Boötes border at a right ascension 15 hours, 18 minutes and declination +49.5 degrees north. This puts it very near the +3.3 magnitude star Iota Draconis (Edasich).

Quads 2UT. Credit: Orbitron
The orientation of the Earth’s shadow at the predicted peak of the Quads on January 4th,  2:00 UT. Credit: Orbitron.

In 2015, bets are on for the Quadrantids to peak centered on 2:00 UT January 4th (9:00 PM EST on the 3rd), favoring northern Europe pre-dawn. The duration for the Quadrantids is short lived, with an elevated rate approaching 100 per hour lasting only six hours in duration. Keep in mind, of course, that it’ll be worth starting your vigil on Saturday morning January 3rd in the event that the “Quads” kick off early! I definitely wouldn’t pass up on an early clear morning on the 3rd, just in case skies are overcast on the morning of the 4th

Due to their high northern radiant, the Quadrantids are best from high northern latitudes and virtually invisible down south of the equator.  Keep in mind that several other meteor showers are active in early January, and you may just spy a lingering late season Geminid or Ursid ‘photobomber’ as well among the background sporadics.

Photo by author
Avast: ye ole Mural Quadrant spied at the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria, Oregon. Photo by author.

Moonset on the morning of the 4th occurs around 6 AM local, giving observers a slim one hour moonless window as dawn approaches. Blocking the Moon out behind a building or hill when selecting your observing site will aid you in your Quadrantid quest.

The approximate realm of the “Mural Quadrant” overlaid on modern day constellations. Credit Stellarium.

Antonio Brucalassi made the first historical reference to the Quadrantids, noting that “the atmosphere was traversed by… falling stars” on the morning of January 2nd, 1825. It’s interesting to note that the modern day peak for the Quads has now drifted a few days to the fourth, due mostly to the leap year-induced vagaries of our Gregorian calendar. The early January meteor shower was noted throughout the 19th century, and managed to grab its name from the trendy 19th century constellation of Quadrans Muralis, or the Mural Quadrant. Hey, we’re lucky that other also-rans, such as Lumbricus the ‘Earthworm’ and Officina Typograhica the ‘Printing Office’ fell to the wayside when the International Astronomical Union formalized the modern 88 constellations in 1922. Today, we know that the Quadrantids come from 2003 EH1, which is thought to be an extinct comet now trapped in the inner solar system on a high inclination, 5.5 year orbit. Could 2003 EH1 be related to the Great Comet of 1490, as some suggest? The enigmatic object reached perihelion in March of 2014, another plus in the positive column for the 2015 Quads.

What the heck is a Mural Quadrant?
What the heck is a Mural Quadrant? Like everything he did, Tycho Brahe super-sized his quadrant, depicted here. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Previous years for the Quadrantids have yielded the following Zenithal Hourly Rate (ZHR) maximums as per the International Meteor Organization:

2011= 90

2012= 83

2013= 137

2014= +200

The Quadrantid meteor stream has certainly undergone alterations over the years as a result of encounters with the planet Jupiter, and researchers have suggested that the shower may go the way of the 19th century Andromedids and become extinct entirely in the centuries to come.

Don’t let cold weather deter you, though be sure to bundle up, pour a hot toddy (or tea or coffee, as alcohol impacts the night vision) and keep a spare set of batteries in a warm pocket for that DSLR camera, as cold temps can kill battery packs quicker than you can say Custos Messium, the Harvest Keeper.

And though it may be teeth-chatteringly cold where you live this weekend, we actually reach our closest point to the Sun this Sunday, as Earth reaches perihelion on January 4th at around 8:00 UT, just 5 hours after the Quads are expected to peak. We’re just over 147 million kilometres from the Sun at perihelion, a 5 million kilometre difference from aphelion in July. Be thankful we live on a planet with a relatively circular orbit. Only Venus and Neptune beat us out in the true roundness department!

…and no, you CAN’T defy gravity around perihelion, despite the current ill conceived rumor going ‘round ye ole net…

And as a consolation prize to southern hemisphere observers, the International Space Station reaches a period of full illumination and makes multiple visible passes starting December 30th until January 3rd. This happens near every solstice, with the December season favoring the southern hemisphere, and June favoring the northern.

2003 Credit and Copyright: Frankie Lucena.
A 2003 south bound Quad nabbed from Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico (Yes, that’s the Southern Cross!) Credit and Copyright: Frankie Lucena.

So don’t let the relatively bad prospects for the 2015 Quadrantids deter you: be vigilant, report those meteor counts to the IMO, send those meteor pics in to Universe Today and tweet those Quads to #Meteorwatch. Let’s “party like it’s 1899,” and get the namesake of an archaic and antiquated constellation trending!

The Quadrantid Meteor Shower-One of the Best Bets for 2014

The modern radiant of the Quadrantid meteor shower. (Photo and grahpics by author).

If there’s one thing we love, it’s a good meteor shower from an obscure and defunct constellation.

Never heard of the Quadrantids?  It may well be because this brief but intense annual meteor shower occurs in the early days of January. Chilly temps greet any would be meteor watchers with hardly the balmy climes of showers such as the August Perseids. Still, 2014 presents some good reasons to brave the cold in the first week of January, to just possibly catch the best meteor shower of the year.

The Quadrantids – sometimes simply referred to as “the Quads” in hipster meteor watcher inner circles – peak on January 3rd around 19:30 Universal Time (UT) or 2:30 PM Eastern Standard Time (EST). This places the northern Asia region in the best position to watch the show, though all northern hemisphere observers are encouraged to watch past 11 PM local worldwide. Remember: meteor showers are fickle beasties, with peak activity often arriving early or late. The Quadrantids tie the December Geminids for the highest predicted Zenithal Hourly Rate (ZHR) for 2014 at 120.

A 2012 Quadrantid meteor in the bottom left side of the frame. (Photo by Author).
A 2012 Quadrantid meteor in the bottom left side of the frame. (Photo by Author).

Though the Quads are active from January 1st to the 10th, the enhanced peak only spans an average of six to ten hours. Though high northern latitudes have the best prospects, we’ve seen Quads all the way down in  the balmy January climes of Florida from around 30 degrees north.

Rates for the Quads are typically less than 10 per hour just a day prior to the sharp peak. The moonless mornings of Friday, January 3rd and Saturday, January 4th will be key times to watch. The radiant for the Quads stands highest just hours before local sunrise.

So, what’s up with the unwieldy name? Well, the Quadrantids take their name from a constellation that no longer exists on modern star charts. Along with the familiar patterns such as Leo and Orion, exist such archaic and obscure patterns as “The Printing Office” and the “Northern Fly” that, thankfully, didn’t make the cut. Quadrans Muralis, or the Mural Quadrant, established by Jérome de Lalande in the 1795 edition of Fortin’s Celestial Atlas was one such creation.  A mural quadrant was a large arc-shaped astronomical tool used for measuring angles in the sky. Apparently, Renaissance astronomers were mighty proud of their new inventions, and put immortalized them in the sky every chance they got as sort of the IPhone 5’s of their day.

The outline of the Mural Quadrant against the backdrop of modern day constellations. (Photo and graphic by author).
The outline of the Mural Quadrant against the backdrop of modern day constellations. (Photo and graphic by author).

The Mural Quadrant spanned the modern day constellations of Draco, Hercules and Boötes. The exact radiant of the Quads lies at Right Ascension 15 Hours 18’ and declination 49.5 degrees north, in the modern day constellation Boötes just 15 degrees east of the star Alkaid.

Previous year’s maximum rates as per the IMO have been as follows:

2013: ZHR=129

2012: ZHR=83

2011: ZHR=90

2010: ZHR=No data (Bright waning gibbous Moon)

2009: ZHR=138

The parent source of the Quadrantids went unknown, until Peter Jenniskens proposed that asteroid 2003 EH1 is a likely suspect. Possibly an extinct comet, 2003 EH1 reaches perihelion at 1.2 AUs from the Sun in 2014 on March 12th, another reason to keep an eye on the Quads in 2014. 2003 EH1 is on a 5.5 year orbit, and it’s been proposed that the asteroid may have a connection to comet C/1490 Y1 which was observed and recorded by 15th century astronomers in the Far East.

The Quadrantids were first identified as a distinct meteor shower in the 1830s by European observers. Owing to their abrupt nature and their climax during the coldest time of the year, the Quadrantids have only been sporadically studied. It’s interesting to note that researchers modeling the Quadrantid meteor stream have found that it undergoes periodic oscillations due to the perturbations from Jupiter. The shower displays a similar orbit to the Delta Aquarids over a millennia ago, and researchers M. N. Youssef and S. E. Hamid proposed in 1963 that the parent body for the shower may have been captured into its present orbit only four thousand years ago.

The orbital path of Amor NEO asteroid 196256 2003 EH1. (Credit: NASA/JPL Solar System Dynamics Small-Body Database Browser).
The orbital path of Amor NEO asteroid 196256 2003 EH1. (Credit: NASA/JPL Solar System Dynamics Small-Body Database Browser).

2003 EH1 is set to resume a series of close resonnance passes of Earth and Jupiter in 2044, at which time activity from the Quads may also increase. It’s been proposed that the shower may fade out entirely by the year 2400 AD.

And the Quadrantids may not be the only shower active in the coming weeks. There’s been some discussion that the posthumous comet formerly known as ISON might provide a brief meteor display on or around the second week of January.

Be sure to note any meteors and the direction that they’re coming from: the International Meteor Organization and the American Meteor Society always welcomes any observations. Simple counts of how many meteors observed and from what shower (Quads versus sporadics, etc) from a given location can go a long way towards understanding the nature of this January shower and how the stream is continually evolving.

Stay warm, tweet those meteors to #Meteorwatch, and send those brilliant fireball pics in to Universe Today!