Quadrantids meteor shower peaks – briefly – tonight

By Phil Plait | January 3, 2012 10:33 am

Tonight is one of the odder meteor showers of the years. Why is it odd? Well for one, it’s called the Quadrantids — named after a constellation that got redefined years ago and no longer exists. For another, the parent object of the shower isn’t a comet, it’s an asteroid that used to be a comet. And third, the shower peaks very sharply, coming and going in only an hour or two!

Here’s the deal.

First, meteor showers occur when the Earth plows through a trail of debris in space, usually left by a comet orbiting the Sun. The meteoroids — the solid bits of material — are usually very small, no bigger than a grain of sand. As they plow through our atmosphere at speeds of dozens of kilometers per second, they burn up, turning into meteors (if they hit the ground they’re called meteorites, which is very rare). Normally, you can see several random meteors every hour on a dark night, but during showers there may be dozens.

The length of time a shower lasts depends on how wide the debris field is. For most meteor showers it’s millions of kilometers wide, and so the showers can take days to play out. But the stream for the Quadrantids is very narrow, and the shower lasts for only an hour or so! It peaks tonight around 2 – 3 a.m. Eastern US time (07:00 – 07:00 GMT). That’s not an exact period, so if you want to see them you should go out an hour or so before then. There may be as many as 100 meteors per hour during that time!

Unfortunately, the waxing gibbous Moon is up tonight, so it’ll wash out a lot of the shooting stars. People on the east coast of the US have the best shot, since the Moon will hopefully have set by the time the shower peaks. However, Central time zone folks have a good view too since the Moon will be low to the horizon. I’ll give it a try tonight, since it peaks at midnight my time (in Boulder) and that’s early enough even for me to stay up.

How do you watch? All you need is an open sky and a place to lie down and relax. Someplace dark, away from trees and buildings is best. Meteors zip across the sky, so the more sky you see the better. I have a page with general advice on how to watch meteor showers that’ll help. It was written for a different shower, but the advice still applies.

As I said, meteor showers come from debris shed by comets as they orbit the Sun. These bits of stuff more or less follow the same orbit as their parent comet, and we get showers when the Earth rams through this material. However, the Quadrantids come from an object called 2003 EH1, which looks more like an asteroid — comets usually have lots of ice, but this object doesn’t. However, it’s on a comet-like orbit, so it most likely used to be a comet long ago which lost all its ice, leaving just rocky material behind.

And finally, the name: meteor showers appear to radiate from one point in the sky, in much the same way all the lights in a tunnel seem to be coming from ahead of you as you drive through that tunnel. Showers are named after the constellation where the meteors appear to come from: the Perseids for Perseus, the Orionids for Orion, and so on. Constellations are arbitrary boundaries in the sky, like state or county lines. Quadrans Muralis was a constellation defined back in the 19th century, and still existed when the Quadrantids were named, but was divided up when the modern official lines were drawn in 1930. That part of the sky is near the tail of the Big Dipper; so the meteors will appear to radiate away from the north across the sky.

So again, what to do: find a dark, open site. Try to bring a chaise longue or something where you can lie back and see lots of sky. Looking straight up is best. You don’t need binoculars or a telescope or anything like that: just your eyes, and a sense of wonder. Meteor showers can be a lot of fun, so I hope you see some good ones tonight!

Image credit: Randy Halverson. That’s not a meteor from the Quadrantids, but it’s still pretty.


Related posts:

- 12 things you need to see the Perseid meteors Sunday night (a general guide to meteor shower observing)
- What a falling star looks like… from space!
- New meteor shower points to a future close encounter
- Will the Leonids roar in 2009?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy

Comments (38)

  1. Gary Ansorge

    Earths velocity is about 18 miles/sec, so that makes the debris field about 64,000 miles wide? Wow, that IS narrow.

    Thanks for all you do, Phil.

    Gary 7

  2. 07:00 – 07:00 GMT ? Sounds incorrect . Should be 07:00 – 07:30 GMT I guess

  3. Clear skies are predicted for my location, but that comes with temperatures 14 degrees Fahrenheit (-10C) and 12 MPH (19 KPH) winds. :(

  4. Robin Byron

    Perfect timing. The forecast low for northeastern SC tonight is 19°F with an, as yet, unknown wind chill factor. Right now (1:30pm) the temp is 37°F with a wind chill of 28°F. It’s supposed to remain clear but clouds are trying to form as I type anyway (current humidity is 35% with extreme fire danger). Two days ago the high was 77°F. Hoping for clear sky’s for all.

  5. STEVE

    ” (07:00 – 07:00 GMT)”

    Well, that is brief.

    Should be 03.30 – 08.00 U.T.

  6. Ohio Mike

    BA wrote: “…the shower peaks very sharply…”

    Could be: “…the shower peaks vary sharply…”

    Homonym fun!

  7. Cindy

    Hmm, mostly clear but with over night lows around 13 F and 8 – 15 MPH winds, plus I have to teach tomorrow.

    I’ll be snuggled up under my warm flannel sheets tonight.

  8. Zach

    If a type of nut while still on a tree is called a PECAN and when it hits the ground is called a PECON then what is is called as it is falling?

    PECOID :o )

  9. NAW

    Why is the one night that we have a clear night on a shower is also one of the coldest we have had this season? 2 to 3 am EST may be a little late. I may bundle up and go outside for a bit though.

  10. I was out last december 22nd waiting on the full eclipse at 2am in 22 degree temperatures, doing time-lapse.. (the eclipse finally showed up around 3am)

    It’s 20 degrees now, I have a feeling I’ll be out there tonight.. if I can find a spot from which to capture this with my camera, while safely able to hibernate in my car…

  11. Tom

    Here’s a silly question…Why does (do?) the debris from these comets and former comets hang around so long? My understanding is that they were ice crystals, etc that were spewed out by the comets as they approached or pulled away from the sun. Is this debris cloud hanging in space, or do the little itsy pieces follow the same orbit as the comet and circle the sun? Is there actually a giant elliptical ribbon of debris that extends way out past the gas giants (tracing the course of the comet)?

  12. “All you need is an open sky and a place to lie down and relax.”

    If you’re viewing from the East Coast tonight, you may also need thermal survival gear. Or at least give your next of kin some idea where they can come looking for your cryogenically-preserved corpse in the morning.

  13. Messier Tidy Upper

    @10. Zach : January 3rd, 2012 at 3:07 pm

    If a type of nut while still on a tree is called a PECAN and when it hits the ground is called a PECON then what is is called as it is falling? PECOID

    I would have said a PECEOR actually! ;-)

  14. NAW

    @ Tom: Of what I am reading the dust and stuff orbits along with the comet or asteroid. Sadly the best thing talking about it is the Wiki page.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meteor_shower#The_dynamical_evolution_of_meteoroid_streams

  15. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ Then, if it hits the ground a PECEOR becomes a PECEORITE too! ;-)

    @ 13. Tom :

    Here’s a silly question…Why does (do?) the debris from these comets and former comets hang around so long? My understanding is that they were ice crystals, etc that were spewed out by the comets as they approached or pulled away from the sun. Is this debris cloud hanging in space, or do the little itsy pieces follow the same orbit as the comet and circle the sun? Is there actually a giant elliptical ribbon of debris that extends way out past the gas giants (tracing the course of the comet)?

    From my understanding of things – which, yep, may always be mistaken – the answer is yes. :-)

    Yes, there is a giant stream of debris all along the comet’s – or in this case ex-comet’s – path.

    The ejected cometary debris does stick around following at least a similar orbit until something changes that and these meteoroid shower streams will disippate very gradually over time (like hundreds, thousands or even millions of years) as perturbations, the gravitational tugs of the various planets and even large asteroids and the effects of the solar wind take their toll on shifting individual particles and dust motes away from their original orbits plus the particles literally fall to Earth (& Venus & Mars & impact into our Moon, etc ..) and are thus destroyed or at least added to our & other planet’s mass.

    Good luck with the Quadrantid viewing – wishing y’all clear skies. :-)

    *****

    “The silt in a house’s eaves probably contains a minute amount of interplanetary material.”
    - Page 70, ‘The Universe and Beyond’, Terence Dickinson, Camden House, 1992.

  16. Messier Tidy Upper

    plus the particles literally fall to Earth (& Venus & Mars & impact into our Moon, etc ..

    For example see :

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2008/03/19/lunar-meteor-impact-on-video/

    & see also :

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=axlL2QKp6BQ

    For a possible example caught on youtube.

    For the quadrantids – see :

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=axlL2QKp6BQ

    for my favourite metoer sites take on this.

    Hope these links are enjoyable /interesting /useful for y’all. :-)

  17. xmundt

    @11 – Because Nature has a sense of humor. It is not a good one, but, it IS there.

  18. toefur

    Its 2-3AM “local” time REGARDLESS of time zone. Its the way the world works, really. It’s the rotation that goes through the field, so the whole world will see it when it’s “their” turn at “their” 3 AM.

  19. CR

    Well, in the Central US time zone, it’s happening as I type this… I just got back inside due to very cold temps and not the greatest of viewing conditions: I live in a city (complete with a bright streetlight next to my house) and the sky is blanketed with high cirrus that allows mostly only the brightest stars to show through (and blurs them and the moon a bit).
    In spite of that, I saw a meteor within minutes of having stood outside (a large tree blocking the streetlight for me) and caught a glimpse of a ‘maybe’ metoer just out of the corner of my eye… it was radiating from the right area/going the right direction, so I’m pretty sure it was indeed a meteor.
    Even with everything counting against my viewing, if I saw two meteors within a few minutes of each other under those viewing conditions, others with clearer skies should have a nice show to see. Not holding breath for any bolides/fireballs, mind you, as the two I saw were very short duration and not terribly bright (might that dimness be in part due to the cloud cover?), but still… enjoy the show everyone!

  20. CR

    By the way, Harold (@14), your post made me chuckle out loud. Makes me wonder: is it possible to freeze while standing with one’s back arched and head canted back while looking straight up? Hmm…

  21. toefur

    Yes, there will be activity all night. I was referring to the peak, after the moon is set. 3ish in each time zone.

  22. LightPollution

    Well, down here just outside of Austin, I just spent some time pressed up against a window with all the lights off, hoping to see a few.

    Unfortunately I live in Suburban Texas, just outside Austin. Where everyone else on the street does two things: Water nuclear green grass with water we don’t have, and leave every single outside light (Plus Holiday Lights) on all night long. Perhaps to help the grass grow?

    I did spot one terribly bright one, but not really getting my hopes up for more visible in this particular spot. I might try driving down to the Canyon Lake area with a thermos.

  23. I took a couple of photos of the Quadrantids meteor shower this morning…

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/sdowen/6634121515/in/set-72157628713334987
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/sdowen/6634120545/in/set-72157628713334987

    Phil, please feel free to use these. I’d appreciate a photo credit and/or a link back to the pictures, but I’ll understand if that can’t be done.

    Thanks,
    Steve

  24. Paddy

    I was quite interested in doing this, until I realised it was last night. Doh!

  25. How is a comet-like orbit different from another type of orbit, like an asteroid? And why is this so? What about the way they formed causes them all to be on similar orbits? Thanks!!!

  26. Gary

    Five meteors seen between 2:15 and 2:45 a.m.. Disappointing to say the least. Twelve degrees and a wind chill of zero didn’t help any. The moon and skies weren’t a problem.

  27. Didn’t.
    See.
    Squat.

    I did see a bright sporadic Monday night, though.

  28. Robin Byron

    1:30-2:50am – Beautifully clear skies here in rural SC and 20 degrees with a gentle breeze. My son and I used teamwork to brave the cold in shifts and managed to score one quadrantid each which could be described as “cheesy poofs”.

  29. Jesse

    I’m so sick of the media and bloggers promoting these showers as something spectacular, when they clearly are not. I woke my wife up, drove into the country, and we watched the sky from 2am-2:45 and saw NOTHING. Clear skies, we were looking in the right direction, and not a damn thing.

  30. Steve (26): Nice! I linked to them from Google+. I like that both Gemini and Leo are easily recognizable, too.

  31. Jesse (32): A lot of people seem to have seen quite a few. Perhaps you got the timing off? Either way, this is a reliable shower every year, with an average of 1 or more meteors per minute. I’m sorry you didn’t see any, but I think your claim of “they clearly are not” is not entirely fair.

  32. Raywashere

    Managed to see a couple last night but it was -30C with wind chill here in Ottawa, Canada so I was more worried about loosing a foot. Will be better prepared for the next one.

  33. Jess Tauber

    Two hours freezing my caboose- ONE freaking meteor, just on the south of the Big Dipper’s tail end, traveling in same direction. AND I DIDN’T EVEN GET A LOUSY TEESHIRT!

  34. xmundt

    Greetings and Salutations….
    I watched the video feed from NASA for a bit, but, with no results. I suspect though, that was because of connection speed issues, as others said they saw some meteors on the video. Still, not as good as being out under the sky.
    @32 Jesse – The problem with meteor showers is that they are tiny particles, separated by thousands of miles, and spraying the entire hemisphere of the Earth at random moments. Although it is called a “Shower” it is more like a light snow flurry. The media does fail, in that it makes it sound as if the sky is going to be filled with streaks of light. That is rarely the case. Actually, I have been looking up for 50 years or so, and I have seen exactly one shower that looked like that, and, that was 40 years ago.
    The bottom line is that watching a meteor shower requires patience, persistence and not worrying about exact timing. You may sit and see nothing for an hour…then, suddenly, you will see a burst of a dozen or more meteors burning through the sky in a spectacular display. That is just how it works….
    Phil is correct…and maybe next time, your experience will be better
    pleasant dreams
    dave mundt

  35. kfh

    i go to every meteor shower veiwing.the best one ive ever seen was this one 4 years ago…..

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