The quirky Quadrantids

Jan 1

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1/1/2014 10:03 AM  RssIcon

One of the best meteor showers of the year peaks when the Moon is out of the way. But when and where to look?

Meteor showers are named after constellations, because their radiant - that is to say, the place in the sky from which they appear to come from - is generally a specific constellation. We have the Perseids radiating from Perseus, the Lyrids coming from Lyra and the Quadrantids coming from... ummmm - Quadr... what now? 

Constellation names

Ah yes, that leads to another point: Sometimes constellations got named in the past, but also discarded often because they either fell into disuse or, more recently, were thrown out by the International Astronomical Union. However, the Quadrantids kept the name of the the defunct constellation Quadrans Muralis. This was named after a tool that astronomers of yore used to measure angles in the sky. It is located just off the end of the handle of the "Big Dipper" or "Plough" asterism in Ursa Major, and between Draco and Bootes. Composed of largely dim stars, it's no wonder it was dropped as a constellation.

Quadrantids radiant location

Facing NE, around 1:00 am Jan 3

However, we still have meteors that radiate from here. So when to look? The peak occurs at 19:00 UT, which puts it right around when it is getting dark in Europe and early / mid afternoon for the Americas. So although Asia may get the best views, estimates of shower peaks are just that - estimates. They may be off by 6 to 12 hours, and there will always be some that will be ahead or behind the peak anyway. 

A very high ZHR

But there's good reason to watch this shower. One is the Moon is only a few days past new, so its glare will not be a factor when trying to observe. The second is that the Zenithal Hourly Rate (ZHR) peaks at 120 meteors. That means it outpaces even the normally prolific Perseids (that has a 90 meteors ZHR), and observers could see, on average, up to two meteors per minute at the peak. Unfortunately for North America, the radiant is still low in the sky, even at midnight, after which time is generally best to see the most meteors. So looking somewhat up and towards the northeast in the direction of the Big Dipper / Ursa Major may be your best observing opportunity, rather than overhead.

Bundle up!

However, the two best showers of the year - the Geminids in mid December and Quadrantids in early January - occur when it is cold for many northern hemisphere observers, and the northerly location of this coming shower means it is best-placed for those of us north of the equator - and particularly those WELL north. Because it is cold temperature observing, there are some ways to stay warm and safe while observing in the cold.

Observing ideas

  • Use a sleeping bag while reclining on a lawn chair - this can keep you warm while looking upwards
  • Keep a thermos of hot apple cider or hot chocolate nearby - it is important to stay hydrated in cold, dry winter air
  • Eat carbohydrates before observing to keep body metabolism going - this generates natural body heat
  • Long exposure photos can capture meteors that enter the frame of your camera. Use a wide angle lens with stopped down aperture, and take some 30 seconds, 60 seconds or longer photos (provided light pollution doesn't wash out the picture) overhead or towards the north. If nothing else, you can capture some great star trails.
  • Don't look right at the radiant - meteors tend to occur 25 to 60 degrees from the radiant (more tips on meteor observing here)
  • Don't drink alcohol or caffeine, or smoke tobacco - all of these constricts blood vessels and lowers body temperature

Above all, have fun! Meteor observing can be don't by anyone, anywhere, though city and brightly-lit surburban areas will mask some of the dimmer meteors, lowering overall visible counts. And if you like, you can submit direction and brightness observations to the International Meteor Organization or the American Meteor Society. Doing so helps scientists understand how to predict meteor showers in the future, and see how the stream of particles revolving around the Sun the produces them evolves. 

Interested in observing great objects in the night sky? How about gazing at Pollux and the double star Castor in Gemini, or perhaps Orion's nebulae M42 & M43, the open cluster NGC1981, and the double and multiple stars of Orion's sword? For binocular stargazers, there's always Davis' Dog in Taurus.

See the video below for more info on Quadrans Muralis (skip to about 3:07 in the video).

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The Nightlight

This blog includes what to see in the night and daytime skies, thoughts on telescopes, binoculars, and other astronomy observing accessories and equipment, plus my own occasional notes on objects I've seen and observed. Oh, and the random theater or other "my take on life" post. In other words, there is always something interesting. Check it out.