Start the Year With Spark: See the Quadrantid Meteor Shower

Map: Bob King, Source: Stellarium
The Quadrantid meteor shower, named for the obsolete constellation Quadran Muralis, will appear to stream from a point in the sky called the radiant (yellow star), located below the end of the Big Dipper’s handle and across from the bright, orange-red star Arcturus. The map shows the sky around 4 a.m. local time Tuesday, Jan. 3. The shower will be best between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m., the start of dawn. Map: Bob King, Source: Stellarium

If one of your New Year’s resolutions is to spend more time under the stars in 2017, you’ll have motivation to do so as soon as Tuesday. That morning, the Quadrantid (kwah-DRAN-tid) meteor shower will peak between 4 to about 6 a.m. local time just before the start of dawn. This annual shower can be a rich one with up to 120 meteors flying by an hour — under perfect conditions.

Those include no moon, a light-pollution free sky and most importantly, for the time of maximum meteor activity to coincide with the time the radiant is highest in the pre-dawn sky. Timing is everything with the “Quads” because the shower is so brief. Meteor showers occur when Earth passes through either a stream of dusty debris left by a comet or asteroid. With the Quads, asteroid 2003 EH1 provides the raw material — bits of crumbled rock flaked off the 2-mile-wide (~3-4 km) object during its 5.5 year orbit around the sun.

A Quadrantid fireball flares to the left of the Hyades star cluster and Jupiter in 2013. As Earth travels across the debris stream, bits and pieces of asteroid 2003 EH1 strike the atmosphere at nearly 100,000 mph (43 km/second) and vaporize while creating a glowing dash of light called a meteor. Credit: Jimmy Westlake via NASA

Only thing is, the debris path is narrow and Earth tears through it perpendicularly, so we’re in and out in a hurry. Just a few hours, tops. This year’s peak happens around 14 hours UT or 8 a.m. Central time (9 a.m. Eastern, 7 a.m. Mountain and 6 a.m. Pacific), not bad for the U.S. and Canada. The timing is rather good for West Coast skywatchers and ideal if you live in Alaska. Alaska gets an additional boost because the radiant, located in the northeastern sky, is considerably higher up and better placed than it is from the southern U.S. states.

Another Quadrantid fireball. Credit: NASA

The Quads will appear to radiate from a point in the sky below the Big Dipper’s handle, which stands high in the northeastern sky at the time. This area was once home to the now defunct constellation Quadrans Muralis (mural quadrant), the origin of the shower’s name. As with all meteor showers, you’ll see meteors all over the sky, but all will appear to point back to the radiant. Meteors that point back to other directions don’t belong to the Quads are called sporadic or random meteors.

The long-obsolete constellation Quadrans Muralis represents the wall quadrant, a instrument once used to measure star positions. It was created by French astronomer Jerome Lalande in 1795. Credit: Johann Bode atlas

Off-peak observers can expect at least a decent shower with up to 25 meteors an hour visible from a reasonably dark sky. Peak observers could see at least 60 per hour. Tropical latitude skywatchers will miss most of the the show because the radiant is located at or below the horizon, but they should be on the lookout for Earthgrazers, meteors that climb up from below the horizon and make long trails as they skirt through the upper atmosphere.

Set your clock for 4 or 5 a.m. Tuesday, put on a few layers of clothing, tuck hand warmers in your boots and gloves, face east and have at it!  The Quads are known for their fireballs, brilliant meteors famous for taking one’s breath away. Each time you see one chalk its way across the sky, you’re witnessing the fiery end of an asteroid shard. As the crumble burns out, you might be fulfilling another resolution: burning away those calories while huddling outside to see the show.



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!