The cosmos are ringing in the new year with fireworks of their own. The Quadrantid meteor shower — 2019’s first — peaks overnight Thursday into the predawn hours of Friday morning.
Unlike most meteor showers, the Quadrantids’ peak isn’t measured in days — it lasts only a few hours. That makes viewing it a lot trickier. In some years, the four-hour window of maximum activity coincides with daylight hours in the Western Hemisphere, rendering the show a “miss” for viewers in North America.
This year, the display will be a partial hit. Meteor rates forecast to crest around 9 to 10 p.m. Eastern time Thursday, according to the International Meteor Organization. The timing favors viewers in Eastern Europe, but anyone on the night side of Earth will have a shot at catching some shooting stars whiz through the sky.
The exceptionally quick rise and fall in meteor rates is owed to a very narrow stream of debris that Earth intercepts each January. Plus, the planet crosses the stony river nearly perpendicularly, so we don’t stay in it for long. It’s instigated by object 2003 EH1, labeled by NASA as “an asteroid or possible rock comet.” The Quadrantids are unlike most other meteor showers in that respect; the majority other meteors can be traced back to comets. When the interstellar pebbles collide with Earth’s outer atmosphere, they burn up.
The Quadrantids get their name from the constellation Quadrans Muralis, the radiant of the annual shower. Since that’s the apparent origin of the shooting stars, it helps for the constellation to be high in the sky. You can spot the star cluster near the handle of the Big Dipper in the northeast.
Unfortunately, this year’s 9 p.m. peak means the radiant will be below the horizon when meteor rates are predicted to be at their best. That will hack away at the advertised 100 meteor/hour rate, since 60 percent of them will occur outside our field of view. Still, a more realistic 30 to 40 shooting stars per hour will make for welcome spectacle — if skies are clear and you’re willing to brave the cold.
Quadrantid meteors are slow-moving, blazing green, pink, yellow and light blue. Like the Geminids three weeks ago, they’re rich in sodium, magnesium and iron. Scientific study of their light spectra reveals the sodium is peeled off by atmospheric friction rapidly, allowing for “early fragmentation” of the meteors.
They move 26 miles per second — quite sluggish for shooting stars. That means they’ll stick around for longer. On the flip side, Quadrantids aren’t overly bright, so efforts to view them must involve dark skies and a clear view to the north. The nearly new moon will cooperate, setting before dark and only 3 percent illuminated to begin with.
If the weather doesn’t cooperate, don’t fret. This month will also feature a total lunar eclipse on the night of Jan. 20.