We have often featured the major annual displays of “shooting stars” in these columns, such as the Perseids of August and the Geminids of December. But there are several minor displays throughout the year that are also worth watching. This month’s Quadrantid Meteor Shower is one example. And we will also touch on the most famous of all “minor” showers as well.
This year’s Quadrantid display occurs on Friday evening into Saturday morning, January 3rd and 4th. It radiates from the obsolete constellation Quardranus Muralis, now part of Bootes. If you set your Scientifics Star and Planet Locator to midnight you will see the barren area in the sky between the end of the Big Dipper’s handle and northern Bootes where the radiant itself lies. (No wonder this obscure constellation was dropped!) Even though this will be below the horizon for early evening viewing, meteors will be streaming from that area over the northeastern horizon.
There are two reasons this shower is not so well known. Even though its hourly rate can at times approach that of the Perseids, the meteors are mostly rather faint. And unlike the Perseids which can be seen for several days before and after its peak, the Quadrantids have a very short peak (which occurs in the early morning of the 4th) typically lasting only a matter of hours and are all but gone by the next day. In addition, this year the nearly First-Quarter Moon doesn’t set until midnight, so observers won’t have a really dark sky until then. Even so, the Quadrantids have occasional surprise bursts of activity and are worth watching despite the winter cold.
Without question, the most famous of all the “minor” meteor showers is the Leonids which peak around mid-November every year. They radiate from the constellation Leo and typically have disappointing hourly rates of only 10 to 15 meteors an hour. But about every 33 years, they have intense bursts of activity—so much so that in 1833 the sky was said to be “raining” shooting stars and many thought the world was coming to an end! Estimates were that 240,000 meteors appeared over a period of nine hours!
There have been other spectacular Leonid displays since but none to match that of 1833—that is until the night of 1966! Nearing the end of an all-night observing session with dawn soon approaching, I was shocked to see the sky raining meteors at an estimated 40 Leonids a second! Further west at the Kitt Peak National Observatory where the sky was still dark, the display continued and at least a quarter-million-meteors were seen and photographed with their all-sky cameras! So much for “minor meteor showers”!!
— James Mullaney
Former assistant editor at Sky & Telescope magazine & author of nine books on stargazing. His latest, Celebrating the Universe!, is available from HayHouse.com.