Quadrantid Meteor Shower A Sparkling Start To The New Year

The Quadrantids get their name from the constellation Quadrans Muralis, an obsolete constellation no longer recognized. Meteors will appear to stream from below the Big Dipper’s handle. This map shows the view looking northeast around 4:30 a.m. local time. Stellarium

You’re used to the cold by now, right? I’ll just assume you said “yes.” That’s good because we have another meteor shower coming up very soon. Friday morning (Jan. 4) is the peak of the annual Quadrantid meteor shower. Not a lot of people have seen the “Quads” for three reasons: frequent cloudiness this time of year, the cold and the event’s brief duration.

The shower peak lasts only about 6 hours and this year occurs around 8:30 p.m. (Central Time) Jan. 3, which sounds perfect except for one small detail — the radiant or point in the sky from which the meteors streak will be near or below the horizon for much of the U.S. and southern Canada at that time. But for skywatchers in Europe, North Africa and far western Asia, the timing is perfect. The radiant will stand high in the northeastern sky, and meteors will spitball at a rate of around 100 per hour. I’ve seen the Quadrantids at their peak just once back in the 1980s. Meteors popped all over the place in the frigid pre-dawn sky.

Tycho Brahe’s mural quadrant Uraniborg was made from brass and was affixed to a wall that was oriented precisely north-south. Tycho (seated) views a star through the opposite opening (upper left) to determine its altitude as it passes through the meridian. An assistant (lower right) reads the time off a clock and another one (lower left) records the measurements. Notice the dog resting at his feet. Engraving from the book: Tycho Brahe (1598)

Viewers in the U.S. and Canada will miss the peak by a few hours but should still manage to see 20-25 meteors per hour between about 4-6 a.m. local time Friday morning the 4th. The radiant lies in the former and now obsolete constellation of Quadrans Muralis the Mural Quadrant, a device used to measure angles between objects in the sky. The famous astronomer Tycho Brahe used one to measure precise positions of Mars, which became the basis for another astronomer, Johannes Kepler, to derive the three key laws of planetary motion.

The Quadrantids originate from what appears to be an extinct comet discovered in 2003 called 2003 EH1. Notice how steeply its orbit is tipped. Because the stream is narrow and Earth passes through it perpendicularly, the planet shoots through the densest stream of meteoroids in hours, the reason for the brief shower peak. Positions and data are shown for Jan. 3 at 6 p.m. Central Time. NASA / JPL Horizons

These days the radiant lies in northern Boötes the Herdsman below the tail of the Big Dipper and doesn’t come into good view until the wee hours. However, you might try looking for Quardrantid Earthgrazers, meteors that climb upward from the radiant when it sits low to the horizon. They skim the atmosphere from our perspective, moving relatively slowly and streaking for up to a couple seconds or longer. From north of about 40° north latitude (Philadelphia), the radiant is circumpolar (never sets) and tracks along the northern horizon during Thursday evening, Jan. 3. You might just catch sight of a few earthgrazers especially if you’re out around shower peak at 9:30 p.m. Eastern Time (8:30 p.m. Central; 7:30 p.m. Mountain and 6:30 p.m. Pacific). Face north during that time and see what pops up. I’d love to hear if you spot any.

If you decide to go out in before dawn on the 4th, you can face any direction but my favorite is to look about 90° either side of the radiant to get a good mix of short-trailed and long-trailed meteors, so either north or southeast. The Quadrantids will be one of the best showers of 2019 only because a bright moon will be out for the classically richest showers, the August Perseids and December Geminids.