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View from Mars Hill: Quadrantid Meteor Shower

Photo: Prokhor Minin

By Kevin Schindler

The new year kicks off with a bang as the Quadrantid Meteor Shower makes its annual visit on January 3-4. This shower can produce as many meteors as its better known brethren such as the Perseids, but, with a peak lasting only a few hours instead of the more typical day or more, the opportunity for viewing is limited. The Quadrantid meteors are also notable both for their outdated name and origin, whose identity has ties to Flagstaff.

Italian observer Antonio Brucalassi first noted this shower when he wrote in 1825, “the atmosphere was traversed by a multitude of the luminous bodies known by the name of falling stars.” The celestial streakers appeared to radiate from the constellation Quadrans Muralis, (the “Mural Quadrant”), a group of stars mapped by French astronomer and science popularizer Jerome Lalande in 1795. Since meteor showers are named for the constellation from which they appear to emanate, this one became known as the Quadrantids.

If Quadrans Muralis doesn’t sound familiar, that’s because it is no longer recognized as a valid constellation. In 1922 the International Astronomical Union, the governing body of astronomical policy including nomenclature, condensed and standardized the Greek/Roman constellations in an effort to create a universally accepted method of mapping the sky. Quadrans Muralis didn’t make the cut, and the area of sky with which it had been associated was subsumed under the constellations Bootes and Draco. Despite Quadrans Muralis’s rejection from the modern family of 88 constellations, the name Quadrantids stuck for the meteor shower, memorializing Lalande’s effort.

Most meteor showers come from the remains of comet tails orbiting the Sun. The parent body of the Perseid meteors, for instance, is a comet commonly known as Swift-Tuttle. Into the twentieth century, the parent body of the Quadrantids was unknown. This changed in 2003 when Dutch/American astronomer and meteor shower expert Peter Jenniskens theorized their connection to a small solar system body, 2003 EH1, which is likely an extinct comet; astronomers today generally regard it as an asteroid. This body had been discovered on March 6, 2003 by the Lowell Observatory Near-Earth-Object Search, an asteroid and comet search program headed by Lowell astronomer Ted Bowell that ran from 1993 to 2008. After this discovery, Jenniskens studied 2003 EH1’s orbit and realized it matched that of the Quadrantids, indicating it was the likely parent body.

Whatever the true origin of the Quadrantids, they reliably visit at the beginning of each year, with a peak often exceeding 50 meteors per hour. This is limited to about a half dozen hours that in 2020 should span the late night of January 3 into the early morning hours of January 4. Moonlight won’t interfere much since the nearly first-quarter Moon will be low in the West, setting at 12:42 a.m.