This won’t be a great meteor year, since a Full Moon will blow out the beloved summer Perseids. But right now, Friday and Saturday nights, January 3 and 4, we’ll have the worthy Quadrantids.
Everything about them is weird. They seem to share an orbit with an asteroid instead of a comet – a fact only uncovered ten years ago. Moreover, the meteors seem to stream away from an extinct constellation.
A meteor shower’s radiant is the place from which the meteors seem to emanate. The radiant point of this shower is an area inside the constellation Boötes, not far from the Big Dipper. It sits directly on the northern horizon at nightfall – an odd place for a radiant, since it means that these rocky particles hit our planet from the top side, rather than head-on as we travel through space.
But it gets worse. This lonely, starless splotch of empty sky, situated between the Big Dipper’s handle and the quadrilateral of stars marking the head of the constellation Draco, was once part of Quadrans Muralis, a hallucinogenic pattern invented by the renowned French astronomer Jerome Lalande in 1795. Thirty years later, an Italian astronomer noted that each year on January 3 or 4, “the atmosphere is traversed by a multitude of the luminous bodies known by the name of falling stars” that seemed to radiate from Quadrans Muralis. Another 14 years later, an American and a Belgian astronomer independently concluded that these shooting stars appear every single year.
They are rich indeed – about a meteor-a-minute at their peak. Unfortunately, that peak doesn’t last long. That is why, if you have clear skies and stare at the sky on Friday or Saturday night (the later the better, with midnight to dawn being best), you may see only a few meteors, or you may catch a goodly number.
In any case, this year’s Quadrantids find the Moon a thin, harmless crescent that sets by nightfall, leaving the heavens nice and black all night long. These are the best viewing conditions for any meteor shower in 2014.
In 1922, the International Astronomical Union devised a list of what were to become the 88 modern constellations, and officially adopted it in 1930. Several constellations didn’t make the cut. Gone forever were Argo Navis, the giant ship that dominated the deep-southern skies near Centaurus. Also gone was Quadrans Muralis, which nobody mourned, since it represented a wall-hung star-measuring instrument that had not been used in centuries, anyway.
So Quadrans Muralis is gone, but this meteor shower still oddly retains the name Quadrantids: the possessive form of that long-dead constellation. A strange story of a strange shower that, hopefully, will enjoy clear skies.