Quadrantid Meteor Shower Brief, Beautiful And Peaks Monday

Watch for the annual Quadrantid meteor shower Monday morning before dawn. This view shows the sky facing east around 4 a.m. local time. The meteors will appear to arrive from the radiant, a point in the sky below the handle of the Big Dipper about two fists to the left (north) of the brilliant orange star Arcturus. Comet Catalina, visible in binoculars, will look like a small fuzzball to the left (north) or Arcturus. Created with Stellarium
Watch for the annual Quadrantid meteor shower Monday morning before dawn. This view shows the sky facing east around 4 a.m. local time. The meteors will appear to arrive from the radiant, a point in the sky below the handle of the Big Dipper about two fists to the left (north) of the brilliant orange star Arcturus. Comet Catalina, visible in binoculars, will look like a small fuzzball 5° NW of Arcturus. Created with Stellarium

2016 began with a nice display of the northern lights if you were fortunate enough to have clear skies. Pillars of aurora were briefly visible here in northern Minnesota before clouds moved in. On the heels of that auspicious start, the annual Quadrantid meteor shower peaks Monday morning January 4th. It get its unusual-sounding name from the one-time constellation Quadrans Muralis, located once-upon-a-time below the handle of the Big Dipper. While the constellation never survived into the modern era, its name lives on as the origin of one of the year’s most reliable meteor showers.

The now-obsolete constellation Quadrans Muralis represents the wall quadrant, a instrument once used to measure star positions. Credit: Johann Bode atlas
The now-obsolete constellation Quadrans Muralis represented the wall quadrant, a instrument once used to measure star positions. Credit: Johann Bode atlas

The meteors will appear to radiate from north of the constellation Bootes a fist below the handle of the Big Dipper. Some meteor showers like the August Perseids put on a great show several nights in a row. The “Quads” are in and out, done and gone in a matter of hours. If the peak doesn’t happen to coincide with the radiant well up in a dark sky during its brief climax, you’ll see very few meteors. But if the timing is right and the shower maxes under a dark sky with the radiant high up in the northeast, up to 100 meteors per hour can be seen.

A bright Quadrantid leave a glowing, twisting train in its wake. Credit: Mike Hankey
A bright Quadrantid leave a glowing, twisting train in its wake. Credit: Mike Hankey

Fortunately, this is a good year for the eastern half of the U.S. and Atlantic provinces of Canada with the shower peak expected at 3 a.m. EST (2 a.m.CST, 1 a.m. MST, and midnight PST) Monday morning. The farther east you are, the higher the radiant will be and the more meteors you’ll see. In the upper Midwest for instance, the radiant will be low in the northern sky at the 2 a.m. peak, but if the shower is strong, low altitude may not compromise the shower.

No matter where you live, the radiant climbs highest in the northeastern sky just before the start of dawn. Your best bet is to be out for an hour or more centered on the peak time.

There’s also the possibility the timing could be off a couple hours. Bottom line: don’t miss this opportunity. There will be some light from a 30% illuminated fat crescent moon. Normally, moonlight can kill a good meteor shower, but this moon should only put a small ding in the number of meteors you’ll see. Just make sure you don’t face the moon when you’re out watching or your night vision will suffer, and you’ll see fewer fainter meteors.

A beautiful coincidence! Comet Catalina passed very close to the star Arcturus on New Year's Day morning as captured by Chris Schur
A beautiful pairing! Chris Schur captured Comet Catalina’s close pass of the star Arcturus on New Year’s Day morning.

Dress warmly and relax in a comfy reclining chair facing toward the north or northeast. Like I said, give the shower an hour to show its stuff, then head back inside to warm up. On the chart provided, you’ll notice that the moon, Mars and Virgo’s brightest star Spica are lined up together in the southeast.

I also marked the location of Comet C/2013 US10 Catalina. The comet glows at around magnitude +6.5 just below the naked eye limit but within easy reach of a pair of 7×35, 8×40 or 10×50 binoculars. When you’re not watching for Quads, point your binoculars about one field of view to the upper left of Arcturus and look for a soft, round, fuzzy spot. That’s the comet! Click HERE for a map showing the comet’s nightly location through Jan. 10th.

Quadrantids are slower than other major showers like the August Perseids and December Geminids with speeds around 25 miles per second (41 km/sec). You’ll know you’re seeing a shower member if you can trace its trail back to the northeastern sky below the Dipper. Peter Jenniskens, senior research scientist at NASA’s SETI Institute, traces the Quads’ origin to the asteroid 2003 EH1, an asteroidal object that may be an extinct or occasionally active comet. Every year, we pass through the trail of debris left behind by the object