Sky Talk January 2011: Winter’s “Other” Meteor Shower

December’s Geminid meteor shower was overshadowed (or you could say “eclipsed!”) as discussed in last month’s installment by a spectacular total eclipse of the Moon. Also, the light of a first-quarter Moon compromised evening viewing on the night of its peak activity until it set around midnight. But there’s another great annual display of shooting stars to be seen and enjoyed at this time of the year — the Quadrantids. And the Moon will not be in the picture at all!

Among the annual meteor showers that appear in our skies each year, the Quadrantids is right up there with the best of them, including the famed Perseids in August and last month’s Geminids. The shower’s radiant — that point on the sky from which the meteors appear to emanate — lies in the obsolete constellation Quadrans Muralis (thus its unusual name), which is part of Bootes today. For this reason, some observers prefer to call this display the “Bootids” rather than the Quadrantids.

This year’s event occurs on the evening of January 3rd into the morning of the 4th, with peak activity expected sometime between 2:00 a.m. EST and dawn. The Moon itself will be New on the 4th and so dark skies will prevail. If clear, observers can expect to see upwards of 100 or more shooting stars during this time. And although Bootes itself doesn’t fully rise until well after midnight in January, meteors can still be seen shooting from over the northeastern horizon after darkness falls on the 3rd with meteoric activity increasing throughout the night as the constellation climbs higher in the sky. But there’s an additional factor involved here impacting the number of Quadrantids actually seen. During the evening hours we’re on the side of the Earth “facing away” from the direction we’re moving and the meteors are coming, so they have to “catch up” to us. But after midnight our Spaceship Earth is turned into the direction of the radiant, its 66,000 miles-per-hour orbital motion resulting in them slamming into the atmosphere at much higher speeds than during evening hours. This causes not only many more being seen, but those that are to typically appear brighter and more spectacular. So staying up late for a meteor watch (no matter which shower it happens to be) is well worth losing some sleep!

Since meteor observing sessions usually run many hours, reclining on a lawnchair is normally recommended. But on a frigid January night, you may prefere instead to remain standing and keep moving to stay warm! And while this is basically a naked-eye activity in order to canvass as large an area of the sky as possible, using your Edmund binoculars is also encouraged for following the fascinating drifting “smoke” trails or trains left behind by many of the really bright meteors. And for an added thrill, point your glasses at the radiant itself. If you’re patient (and very lucky!), you may suddenly see a point of light growing rapidly in brightness and then going out in a spectacular burst or flash. This is a Quadrantid meteor heading right at you — one meant just for you!

–James Mullaney
Former assistant editor at Sky & Telescope magazine and author of eight books on stargazing.