It will take determination to see the annual Quadrantid meteor shower this weekend especially for U.S. observers. The annual blizzard of meteors – up to 120 per hour – rivals the Geminids and Perseids. Sadly, it has a very narrow peak that occurs around 8 p.m. (CST) Saturday night Jan. 3, just one night before full moon this year. Not only will the moon spoil the show, the radiant or point in the sky from which the meteors stream, won’t rise into view for many locations until around 11 o’clock local time – several hours past maximum.
The Quandrantids are named for an obsolete constellation Quadrans Muralis which once occupied the space below the Big Dipper’s handle. If you live in the northern U.S. the radiant pokes above the treeline around 11 p.m. Skywatchers in the southern states will have to wait till after midnight.
So the roulette wheel spins. Some years, the ball lands on new moon and we cash out with a big bag of meteors; other years the ball falls into the full moon slot.
Observers in Europe and Africa will fare better. There the the radiant will be well placed in the northeastern sky around 2 a.m. (peak hour) in the British Isles and 4 a.m. in Sweden. No matter where you live, everyone will have to contend with moonlight which is expected to reduce meteor counts to no more than 50 per hour. That’s still a decent show, much better than many of the year’s regular showers like the Lyrids or Orionids.
So you might think after reading this that there’s no point in bothering to look at the Quads. You would be wrong. Even with everything working against us, the shower’s rich enough we might see up to 20 per hour from the U.S. Don’t forget the earthgrazers! These are meteors that streak from the radiant when it’s just below or near the horizon. They fly practically parallel to the atmosphere and last for many seconds as they travel across a great swath of the sky.
To make the best of the Quads, set aside at least a half-hour of viewing time. That’s one less half-hour in front of the TV. Set up a reclining chair facing north and snuggle under a blanket or sleeping bag to keep warm. I’d suggest looking from about 9 p.m. to midnight local time as as a good compromise between radiant height and shower maximum. You never know. The experts could be off a little bit and the meteors could peak a little earlier or later than expected.
Most meteor showers originate from dust and small rocks left by comets as they orbit around the Sun. As Earth travels through the debris stream, each bit of material flames to incandescence when it strikes our atmosphere at speeds of tens of thousands of miles an hour.
Like the Geminids, the Quadrantids originate instead from an asteroid. Its “parent”, 2003 EH1, was discovered in 2003 by the Lowell Observatory Near-Earth Object Search (LONEOS). The 1.8-mile-wide (3 km) asteroid may actually be what’s now called a “rock comet”, a new kind of object being discussed by astronomers.
A rock comet is essentially an asteroid with an orbit that takes it close enough to the Sun for solar heating to scorch dusty debris right off its rocky surface. Rock comets could thus grow comet-like tails that produce meteor showers on Earth. More typical comets are made of mostly ice embedded with dust. Heat from the Sun vaporizes the ice and releases the dust to form coma and tail.
Have fun and by all means stay warm as you watch the first big astronomical event of the new year this Saturday night-Sunday morning.