They are fiery, fast and may use the full moon to fool you. But make no mistake, the Quadrantids are coming.
“It has an intense peak where the shooting stars come at a high frequency,” Misericordia arts and sciences dean Heidi Manning said of the Quadrantid meteor shower now underway. “You may see 50 to 100 meteors in an hour, which is pretty good.” More famous and longer lasting sky shows like the Perseid meteor shower may have half that many.
In the pantheons of meteor showers, the Quadrantid tends to get little publicity. This may be because it peaks for only a day or two, limiting opportunity to see it and limiting locations where it can be seen. It doesn’t help that it’s coming not only in the dead of winter, but this year during one of the coldest stretches on record, Manning noted.
“People aren’t going to go stand outside too much when it’s near zero,” she said. And because it is so short, “if you don’t get there at the right time, you don’t see much.”
But catching a glimpse can be worth it because this display is different.
“Most meteor showers are caused by debris from a comet,” she explained. Comets are largely balls of ice, so much of the material falling to the earth’s atmosphere lacks a lot of solid stuff to burn and light up the sky.
“This particular meteor shower is not from a comet, but from an asteroid. It’s a rockier piece of material, with not as much water, so it may have more bright fireballs.”
Some scientists speculate the asteroid in question used to be a comet itself, in an elliptical orbit that took it past the sun about every five years, Manning said. With each pass, more water was boiled off, leaving just the rocky core now. Which means there is less debris but it burns brighter when it hits the atmosphere.
In fact, almost everything about this meteor shower may be testimony to the concept of entropy, the phenomenon of order falling into a disordered equilibrium. According to earthsky.org, the name — Quadrantids — comes from a star constellation that no longer exists.
When observed in 1825, the shower was named for the constellation from which it appeared to radiate: Quadrans Muralis. Alas, almost a century later (1922) the international Astronomical Union devised a list of 88 modern constellations. That list did not include Quadrans Muralis.
So if you get out somewhere between dusk and dawn Wednesday night and look north, you may have the chance to see the destruction of debris from a former comet in a shower named after a former constellation.
This shower technically may peak around 4 p.m. Wednesday, but meteor showers tend to be most spectacular at early dawn, around 3 or 4 a.m., Manning said. Find a place relatively free of artificial light, pick out the Big Dipper constellation, and look near the end of the dipper handle. To earth-bound observers, that’s where the meteors appear to come from.
AccuWeather predicts a temperature in the teens or lower, so dress warmly.
Sadly for meteor mavens, there is one other problem in getting your fix of Quadrantids this year: An exceptionally bright full moon, known as a supermoon.
While this supermoon peaked New Year’s night, it remains bright enough to outshine many of the Quadrantid meteors this time around, Manning said. The good news? The moon rises and falls in our southern sky, while the meteors shower in the north. Bonus: If you haven’t seen the moon yet, it is a show unto itself, even if you miss the meteors.