The first meteor shower of 2016 peaks in the early morning hours on Monday (Jan. 4). If you can manage to get out of bed (or stay up late), you’ll be in for a good show. Observers are expecting around 80 meteors per hour during its peak.
Alright, where do I look?
Most of the time, I would tell you not to worry about the radiant point (where the meteors appear to come from). But the Quadrantids are a little different. They peak in a shorter time frame than most meteor showers. So, you’ll want to know where to look. Lucky for us, Quadrantids are easy to spot. I’m pretty sure all of us know where the ‘Big Dipper’ is. Just look right under the handle.
Credit: Sky & Telescope
The best time to head outside is around 3 a.m. (EST). If you’re serious about watching them, head out about 30 minutes earlier to let your eyes adjust to the darkness. Lay down on the ground, point your feet towards the ‘Big Dipper’ and enjoy the show.
Where you live matters
Because of the short peak, where you live can make a difference in how many meteors you see. According to NASA, folks living in Alaska and Hawaii will have the best shot to see the 80 meteors per hour peak. Those living on the west coast will also see more than those of us on the east coast.
Tonight’s moon will be a waning crescent, and isn’t expected to have an impact on viewing the meteor shower.
You have a good chance at seeing a fireball
Quadrantids are known to produce fireball meteors. You’ll know it when you see one. Instead of a wispy, fast falling star – you’ll see an incredibly bright, long travelling meteor soar across the sky. And it all has to do with where the meteors come from.
Astronomers discovered the object that produces the Quadrantids in 2003. It’s called 2003 EH1. We’re not quite sure what it is. It’s probably an asteroid, but astronomers also believe it could be a ‘dead comet’ or ‘rock comet.’ 2003 EH1 measures about 3 kilometers across, and it’s these rocky-pieces we see burning up in the atmosphere.
Why do Quadrantids produce fireballs? Most meteor showers come from comets. And most aren’t known for producing fireballs. That’s because comets are more ice than rock (2003 EH1). Since rock is a lot more dense than ice, the chances of seeing a fireball are much higher.
Where does the name come from?
Meteor showers are usually named after the constellation they appear to originate from. The same is true for the Quadrantids. With one big difference. The constellation, “Quadrans Muralis” isn’t recognized anymore.
Quadrans Muralis constellation. Credit: Library of Congress
Back in 1795, French astronomer Jerome Lalande named the constellation. Its name comes from an early astronomical instrument called a quadrant. It was used to observe and plot star positions.
What happened to the constellation? In 1922, the International Astronomical Union created a list of recognized modern constellations (88 of them). And ‘Quadrans Muralis’ didn’t make the cut. The ‘Quadrans Muralis’ was composed of a combination of three other constellations we know today as the Big Dipper, Bootes and Dracos.
The ‘Quadrans Muralis’ may be no more, but its name lives on in the Quadrantid meteor shower.
Featured image credit: Donovan Shortey/Flickr