Quadrantid Meteor Shower

January 3, 2012 by staff 

Quadrantid Meteor ShowerQuadrantid Meteor Shower, To paraphrase Forrest Gump: The Quadrantid meteor shower is like opening up a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get! Indeed, the Quadrantids are notoriously unpredictable, but if any year promises a fine display, this could be it.

Peak activity is due to occur early on Wednesday at about 2:30 a.m. EST (0730 GMT) and favors eastern North America. The Quadrantid meteor shower sky map here for this story shows where to look to see the display.

The Quadrantids (pronounced KWA-dran-tids) provides one of the most intense annual meteor showers, with a brief, sharp maximum lasting but a few hours. Adolphe Quetelet of Brussels Observatory discovered the shower in the 1830s, and shortly afterward it was noted by several other astronomers in Europe and America.

The meteors are named after the obsolete constellation Quadrans Muralis the Mural or Wall Quadrant (an astronomical instrument), depicted in some 19th-century star atlases roughly midway between the end of the Handle of the Big Dipper and the quadrilateral of stars marking the head of the constellation Draco. The International Astronomical Union phased out Quadrans Muralis in 1922.

Unfortunately, many factors combine to make the peak of this display difficult to observe on a regular basis:

Peak intensity is exceedingly sharp: meteor rates exceed one-half of their highest value for only about 6-hours (compared to two days for the August Perseids). This means that the stream of particles that produce this shower is a narrow one – apparently derived within the last 500 years from a small comet.
The parentage of the Quadrantids had long been a mystery. Then Peter Jenniskens, an astronomer at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., noticed that the orbit of 2003 EH1 – a small asteroid discovered in March 2003 – ”falls snug in the shower.” He believes that this 1.2-mile (2-kilometer) chunk of rock is the source of the Quadrantids; possibly this asteroid is the burnt out core of the lost comet C/1490 Y1.

As viewed from mid-northern latitudes, we have to get up before dawn to see the Quadrantids at their best. This is because the radiant – that part of the sky from where the meteors to emanate – is down low on the northern horizon until about midnight, rising slowly higher as the night progresses.

The growing light of dawn ends meteor observing usually by around 7 a.m. local time. So, if the “Quads” are to be seen at all, some part of that 8-hour active period must fall between 2 and 7 a.m.

In one out of every three years, bright moonlight spoils the view.
Over northern latitudes, early January often sees inclement/unsettled weather.

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