Quadrantid meteor shower

January 4th sees the peak of the annual Quadrantid meteor shower.  The Quadrantids is often a poorly-observed event due to the weather in the northern hemisphere at this time of year, and 2015 is worse than usual as the peak of the shower coincides with the date of the full Moon.  Caused by the Earth passing through streams of leftover debris from comets or asteroids, meteors showers are conventionally named after the constellation from which they appear to radiate.  The Quadrantids, however, are named after an abandoned constellation named Quadrans Muralis, the mural quadrant, now a part of Boötes, the Herdsman.  Boötes is home to the star Arcturus, a giant star and the fourth brightest star in the sky, although the rest of the stars in the constellation are much fainter.  The radiant of the Quadrantids is located in the north of the constellation, close to the tail of Ursa Major, the Great Bear (see the image below).

Visible only at northern latitudes, the shower is active between December 28th and January 12th, although with relatively low numbers either side of the peak on January 4th.  At the peak of the shower, early in the morning of January 4th, models predict that there will be up to 120 meteors per hour when observing under ideal conditions.  In practice, the numbers observed will generally be lower than the predicted rate (also known as the ZHR, Zenith Hourly Rate) because observing condition are rarely ideal.  Despite being one of the more active showers of the year, the debris which forms the Quadrantids results in meteors which are fainter on average than many of the more well-known showers and, with the first full Moon of 2015 occurring on January 5th, conditions this year are far from ideal for visual observing.  This shower is unusual in that the parent body, the comet or asteroid which left the debris which gives us this particular light show, remained somewhat uncertain for many years, despite the high activity of the shower.  There is more than one candidate object, with many specialists arguing that the asteroid 2003 EH1 is the likely source, but there are other candidates, and the evolution of the orbit makes identification more difficult.

The Quadrantid radiant

The approximate position of the radiant of the Quadrantid meteor shower (image made with stellarium)

My view: this year I saw a big fat zero.  Last night was also the annual visit to Macclesfield Astronomical Society of the historian of science Dr Allan Chapman; the subject of his lecture this year was the astronomer and mathematician Kepler.  Driving home in thick fog at 10:30pm, I gave up plans to do any observing as I could barely even make out the location of the Moon.  Another excellent reason to fix up another radio receiver to replace the now non-functional Jodrell Bank Observatory Meteor Detector

For more information on meteor showers and advice on observing them, visit the International Meteor Organisation.

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