Astro Bob: Start 2022 with the Quadrantids
A toast to flaming dust! The annual Quadrantid meteor shower adds sparkle to the start of the new year.
While it won't come close to a traditional fireworks show, I like the cosmic coincidence of a meteor shower at the start of the new year. Named for the obsolete constellation Quadrans Muralis , the Quadrantids (kwah-DRAN-tids) range from a modest shower to one of the strongest of the year. It all depends on where you live.
Dust and pebbles shed by the extinct comet 2003 EH1 — the "parent" of the shower — circle the sun in a thin stream nearly perpendicular to Earth's orbit . During each January encounter, we zip through the densest part of the stream in just six hours. If it happens to be dark at your location during that critical time, you'll see more than 100 meteors per hour. But if the six-hour peak occurs, say, in the middle of the afternoon local time, the count drops to about 25 meteors per hour.
We also have to factor in the best time to see the shower. Meteor showers stream from a point in the sky called the radiant, a perspective effect caused by the Earth moving through the cloud of dusty debris at high speed. The Quadrantids blast from a spot located about 15 degrees below the Handle of the Big Dipper, which doesn't clear the trees until after 1 a.m. local time.
In a classic case of bad timing, the 2022 Quadrantids reach maximum around 3 p.m. CST (4 p.m. EST) on Jan. 3. That's perfect if you're reading this in eastern Europe and Asia — where the shower peaks in the early morning hours of Jan. 4 — but less than ideal for North America. U.S. and Canadian observers will get the budget version between 1 a.m. and dawn on Monday morning, Jan. 3, with about 25 meteors visible per hour. If you live along the East Coast the morning of the 4th might be slightly better. And if it's cloudy on the 3rd, we can all give it another try on the 4th.
One thing we do have on our side is dark skies — the moon is close to new and won't interfere one iota.
Because the shower happens during the coldest month of the year, few people get up to see it. But as anyone familiar with winter knows, it's all about dressing properly and being comfortable. I wear every warm piece of clothing I own and tuck a chemical handwarmer inside each of my gloves. Then I get comfy on a reclining lawn chair under a big wool blanket . . . and look up.
Other than dressing well, meteor shower-watching doesn't demand much. Some sleep lost, yes. Some patience required, yes. But once you've stepped out into the forbidding cold and darkness and settled in, the stars overhead bring comfort. Not to mention the excitement at seeing your first Quad!
Meteors will appear anywhere in the sky, but a good direction to face for this shower is southeast. At 1 a.m. local time, the radiant stands about 20 degrees high in the northeastern sky. I'm setting my alarm for 4 a.m. That's not only two hours closer to the the 3 p.m. peak, but the radiant will also be considerably higher. More meteors will flash because fewer will be lost to the trees or cut off by the horizon. Dawn starts here around 6 p.m., providing two hours of cosmic solitude.
Astronomers first noticed the Quadrantids in 1825, when the Mural Quadrant was still recognized as a constellation. It later fell into disuse, but the shower remained. These days, the radiant lies in the northern part of Boötes the Herdsman, which hosts the brilliant orange giant star, Arcturus. As the Earth passes through the particles left by 2003 EH1 in its path, they strike the atmosphere at around 25 miles a second (40 km/sec). Some of the larger fragments are big enough to produce bright fireballs, one of the hallmarks of this shower.
Wishing you clear skies with a dash of meteoric sparkle to bring in the new year!
"Astro" Bob King is a freelance writer for the Duluth News Tribune. Read more of his work at duluthnewstribune.com/astrobob .