The 2012 Quadrantids, a little-known meteor shower named after an extinct constellation, will present an excellent chance for stargazers searching for some late-night meteor watching.
Peaking in the morning of January 4, the Quadrantids have a maximum rate of about 100 per hour, varying between 60-200. The waxing gibbous moon will set around 3 a.m. local time, leaving about two hours of excellent meteor observing before dawn. Unlike the more famous Perseid and Geminid meteor showers, the Quadrantids only last a few hours.
“This year looks like a good year for them,” said Carole Holmberg, planetarium director at the Calusa Nature Center and Planetarium. “They tend to have a pretty narrow peak, about 2 a.m. this year. If you want to set your alarm, go out about 15 minutes before that. Or if you just happen to be out and you see a meteor, you can thank the Quadrantids.”
Like the Geminids, the Quadrantids originate from an asteroid, called 2003 EH1. Dynamical studies suggest that this body could very well be a piece of a comet which broke apart several centuries ago, and that the meteors you will see before dawn on Jan. 4 are the small debris from this fragmentation. After hundreds of years orbiting the sun, they will enter our atmosphere at 90,000 mph, burning up 50 miles above Earth’s surface.
The Quadrantids derive their name from the constellation of Quadrans Muralis, which was created by the French astronomer Jerome Lalande in 1795. Located between the constellations of Bootes and Draco, Quadrans represents an early astronomical instrument used to observe and plot stars.
From the eastern half of North America, a single observer might count on seeing as many as 50 to 100 “Quads” in a single hour. From the western half of the continent the display will be on the wane by the time the moon sets, with hourly rates probably diminishing to around 25 to 50 meteors.