Everything You Need to Know: Quadrantid Meteor Shower

By: EarthSky.org Email
By: EarthSky.org Email
The Quadrantid meteor shower is always the first meteor shower of every new year, and 2013 is no exception.

Quadrantid meteor January 4, 2012

The Quadrantid meteor shower is always the first meteor shower of every new year, and 2013 is no exception. The shower comes each year in early January and favors the Northern Hemisphere because its radiant point is so far north on the sky’s dome. In fact, the Quadrantids might be the strongest and most famous major meteor shower that you’ve never seen. That’s because, although it can match the meteor numbers (50 to 100 meteors or more an hour) of the better-known August Perseid and December Geminid showers, the Quadrantids’ peak is very narrow. The peaks of the Perseid shower or Geminid shower persist more or less for a day or more, allowing all time zones around the world to enjoy a good display of Perseids and Geminids.

Meanwhile, the peak of the Quadrantid meteor shower lasts only a few hours. So you have to be on the right part of Earth, the part that’s in nighttime – preferably with the radiant high in your sky – during those few hours of the shower’s peak, in order to see the most Quadrantid meteors.

Of course, different sources give different times for meteor shower peaks. We like the Observer’s Handbook, whose 2013 edition gives the time of peak on January 3 at 1300 UTC.

Who will see the Quadrantid meteor shower in 2013? The world map above shows the day and night sides of Earth at the instant of the predicted peak of the 2013 Quadrantids, which should be before dawn on January 3. On the above worldwide map, the shadow line running through North America represents sunrise and the shadow line running through Asia represents sunset.

Keep in mind that this forecast represents a best guess, not an ironclad guarantee as to when the peak will actually happen. If the peak comes a few to several hours later than predicted, eastern Asia might see the shower peak before dawn on January 4. Unfortunately, in 2013, the bright waning gibbous moon will be drenching the nighttime with moonlight.

The radiant point for the Quadrantid shower is highest up in the sky during the dark hour before dawn. If the peak of the shower comes as predicted – and that’s a big if – then northwestern North America should be in a good place to watch this year’s Quadrantid meteor shower. That bright waning gibbous moon will be up there. But die-hard meteor watchers will brave the cold anyway, hoping to glimpse a meteor or two!

What time should I watch the Quadrantid meteor shower? All other things being equal, for any meteor showers, you are likely to see the most meteors when the radiant is high in the sky. In the case of the Quadrantid shower, the radiant point is seen highest in the sky in the dark hour before dawn.

Unlike most meteor showers, however, you have to hope that the narrow peak of Quadrantid shower happens at or near the same hour that the radiant point resides highest in your sky. Here’s that peak time again, according to the 2013 Observer’s Handbook: January 3 at 1300 UTC.

By the way, the radiant point of the Quadrantid shower makes an approximate right angle with the Big Dipper and the bright star Arcturus. If you trace the paths of the Quadrantid meteors backward, they appear to radiate from this point on the starry sky. But you don’t need to find the meteor shower radiant to see the Quadrantid meteors. You have to be at mid-northern or far-northern latitudes, up in the wee hours of the morning and hope the peak comes at just the right time to your part of the world. Plus, it’d be good to have a moonless sky – something that we won’t have in early January 2013.

History of the name Quadrantids. Most meteor showers are named for the constellations from which they appear to radiate. So it is with the Quadrantids. But the Quadrantids’ constellation no longer exists. The name Quadrantids comes from the constellation Quadrans Muralis (Mural Quadrant), created by the French astronomer Jerome Lalande in 1795. This now-obsolete constellation was located between the constellations of Bootes the Herdsman and Draco the Dragon. Where did it go?

To understand the history of the Quadrantids’ name, we have to go back to the earliest observations of this shower. In early January 1825, Antonio Brucalassi in Italy reported that “the atmosphere was traversed by a multitude of the luminous bodies known by the name of falling stars.” They appeared to radiate from Quadrans Muralis. In 1839, Adolphe Quetelet of Brussels Observatory in Belgium and Edward C. Herrick in Connecticut independently made the suggestion that the Quadrantids are an annual shower.

But, in 1922, the International Astronomical Union devised a list 88 modern constellations. The list was agreed upon by the International Astronomical Union at its inaugural General Assembly held in Rome in May 1922. It did not include a constellation Quadrans Muralis. Today, this meteor shower retains the name Quadrantids, for the original and now obsolete constellation Quadrans Muralis.

The radiant point for the Quadrantids is now considered to be at the northern tip of Bootes, near the Big Dipper asterism in our sky, not far from Bootes’ brightest star Arcturus. It is very far north on the sky’s dome, which is why Southern Hemisphere observers probably won’t see many (if any) Quadrantid meteors. The meteors simply won’t make it above the horizon for Southern Hemisphere skywatchers.

Parent object of the Quadrantid meteors. In 2003, astronomer Peter Jenniskens tentatively identified the parent body of the Quadrantids as the asteroid 2003 EH1. If indeed this body is the Quadrantids parent, then the Quadrantids, like the Geminid meteors, come from a rocky body – not an icy comet. In turn, though, 2003 EH1 might be the same object as the comet C/1490 Y1, which was observed by Chinese, Japanese and Korean astronomers 500 years ago. So there’s uncertainty about this object’s parent object.

Bottom line: The first meteor shower of 2013, the Quadrantid meteor shower, probably peaks on the morning of January 3. But, if the peak is even a few hours later than predicted, Asia might see the peak on the morning of January 4. This shower is best for the Northern Hemisphere because its radiant point is far to the north on the sky’s dome. In 2013, a waning gibbous moon will interfere with the shower.

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