The trickster of all meteor showers arrives in a couple days and if you blink you might miss it! Unlike most meteor showers which peak over a day or two, the Quadrantids peak for only a few hours; therefore it is the luck of the draw that the constellation happens to be visible on your side of the globe when this happens (it peaks during the middle of your night). This short peak is very hard to predict and although we know it will be sometime around the 3rd or the 4th, the exact hours of the shower and which part of the globe will win this astronomical game of roulette is still a mystery. If you do catch the peak, the Quadrantid meteor shower can produce as many meteors per hour as some of the more famous showers.
WHEN is it?
Technically, the meteor shower goes from January 1st to January 10th but the meteor shower peaks for only hours. This is when the Quadrantids become the biggest pain of all meteor showers. Unlike most meteor showers, during which your main concern is when the constellation is highest in the sky, the main concern of this meteor shower is catching the short lived peak. This best guess at the peak’s time is around January 3rd 15:00 UTC (11:00 am EST). So you have to find a good medium between when the constellation is visible where you live and when the shower peaks. So the eastern part of the globe should try for the morning of January 4th and the western part should try for the morning of January 3rd (if you are towards the center maybe try both nights). If 15:00 UTC January 3rd is no where near when the constellation is up your local time (12 am to dawn), STICK AROUND; I have some solutions for you guys. Also, good news is the Moon is new January 2nd so no need to worry about it outshining any meteors!
WHERE should you look?
Like most meteor showers the Quadrantids are named after the constellation they radiated from (Quadrans Muralis). Funny thing is that this constellation no longer exists. DUN DUN DUNNNNNN. Don’t worry! A piece of the sky didn’t disappear. Just that back in 1922 when the International Astronomical Union was picking official constellations, Quadrans Muralis didn’t make the cut of 88 constellations…. rude. SO HOW DO YOU FIND THIS MYSTERY CONSTELLATION WHEN NO CURRENT MAPS SHOW IT? You can use a couple of guides; the easiest way to find it is to look near the tail of Ursa Major (or at the end of the handle of the Big Dipper). If you want a more specific answer, it is the piece of sky between Ursa Major, Draco, and Bootes. Now if you are not that confident with constellations, use use an app (like the one I suggested). I highly suggest this because everyone seems to think they know the Big Dipper but are usually just looking at random stars that kind of look like it. I say this as my mom just pointed to Orion the other night and told me, “look it is the Big Dipper”. Now, pick the star Benetnasch and use the app to figure out where the constellation is. You can even figure out when it rises and sets. If you use the app I do, make sure you turn on sky object trajectories and use that as a guide for where the star (or constellation) will be at what time. It should be on automatically but in case it is not, it is the button on the upper right of the settings (as shown on the right). Remember to look around. These meteors will stay close to their radiant point but it can get frustrating focusing on one place for too long.
WHAT are the meteors made of?
These meteors are similar to the Geminids in that they aren’t from a comet but from an asteroid. More specifically, it is the debris for Asteroid 2003 EH1 that comes down every early January and burns up in our atmosphere to produce this light show. This asteroid is thought to be an extinct comet, but there are many clashing theories on this hypothesis.
For those of you who are not wanting to go outside due to weather or are worried that it might be a project getting out there only to see the peak didn’t happen for your location, you should check out Slooh’s broadcast. Slooh is hosting it at an odd hour, 8:30 am EST, on January 3rd to try to catch the predicted peak. Because Slooh has access to telescopes around the globe they can broadcast at any time of day making it convenient for them to share this particular shower with everyone…. I think their catchphrase should be it’s 12 o’clock somewhere.
This starts the long drought of meteor showers; our next one isn’t until late April 🙁 but I have faith we will get through it by watching some other cool stuff in the night sky.