January 2, 2017

Quadrantid meteor shower, one of year’s best, peaks now. Here’s how to see it

Out of all the yearly meteor showers seen from Earth, the Quadrantids are probably the most intense, with a forecast of more than 100 meteors every hour during peak activity.

However, they are also one of the least observed, due to the time of the year they happen. This year, the Quadrantids meteor shower area is projected to hit its maximum on Tuesday at approximately 9 a.m. EST, meaning the Western United States, Alaska and Hawaii are the only ones that will be dark enough for the shower to be visible.

The peak of activity, which doesn’t always stick to the forecast, normally persists around an hour. While other meteor showers can last for days, Quadrantids last only a few hours.

Short but Sweet

The Quadrantids originate from 2003 EH1, an object in space that most likely broke apart from a comet around 500 years ago. The perpendicular orbits of 2003 EH1 and Earth meet annually and the motion of Earth over the debris field of 2003 EH1 results in a short meteor shower.

The Quadrantid meteor shower generally seems to radiate right out of the northeast area of the constellation of Bootes, the herdsman. Meteor showers are typically named after the constellation where they originate from, so you might assume this one would be known as the "Bootids." However, in the late 18th century, there was a constellation in that location called Quadrans Muralis. Belgian astronomer Adolphe Quetelet first spotted the Quadrantid meteor shower in the 1830s, and shortly afterward many scientists in Europe and America documented it. Thus, the meteors were dubbed "Quadrantids;" however, that particular star pattern is no longer there.

At its peak, 60 to 120 meteors per hour should be visible. The meteors appear blue, a color due to layers of magnesium incinerating as the meteors break into Earth's atmosphere.

If you are in a spot where the peak activity of the Quadrantids can be seen, and you don’t mind getting up early on Tuesday, find a cozy place that has little if any artificial light, put down something to lie on and look up. In particular, you'll want to look in the north-northeast direction in the sky, between the North Star and the Big Dipper. Hopefully, the shower will give you a remarkable beginning to 2017.


Image credit:  REUTERS/Javier Barbancho