The Quadrantids meteor shower happens overnight. Viewing the show might be a bit tricky, but it will be well worth the effort. Here's how you might be able to catch the show in Australia — and what a mysterious "disappeared constellation" has to do with it all.
Top image: 2014 viewing of Quadrantids meteor shower in Colorado / Mike Berenson
The Quadrantids are the first meteor shower of the year. Somewhat unusually, they are not the result of debris from an ordinary comet burning up in the atmosphere. Instead, the interstellar debris that we see as a meteor shower comes from a mysterious and relatively newly-discovered object, 2003 EHI.
Variously described as both a minor planet, a dead comet, or an asteroid, the existence of 2003 EHI was first theorised in 1997, but it wasn't until 2003 on Christmas Eve that astronomers were finally able to confirm it by catching a glimpse. It's pieces of this rocky-body that you see burning up as meteors.
Image: 2014 Quadrantids shower / Adrian Kingsley-Hughes
Like last month's Geminids (whose source was a rocket comet), this unusual source also means a couple things for how you see the meteors. They are a little sturdier than your standard meteoroids and so are likely to burn brighter and with longer trails. There should be a good number of those meteoroids too, with NASA predicting rates of 80 meteors per hour this year at a relatively leisurely speed of 40km per second.
Given all that, you might expect the Quadrantids to be one of the top meteor showers of the year — and certainly it's a great show to catch if you can. But this shower remains relatively obscure compared to the Geminids or Perseids or even the Leonids (which have just a fraction of the Quadrantids numbers.)
That's because, even though they can be spectacular, the Quadrantids can also be one of the hardest meteor showers of the year to spot. The problem is time. While most meteor showers have a few days worth of peak activity, the Quadrantids peak will be over in just a few short hours. If you miss the very small window, you're out of luck until next year.
Image: 2011 Quadrantids / Luis Argerich
So, How Do I Watch In Australia?
According to Spacedex.com, the the best hours to observe the meteor shower are between 9pm tonight and 4:30am Eastern Daylight Savings Time Monday morning. Monday morning will be peak time.
Unfortunately however, visibility from Australia in particular will be pretty limited due to reduced moonlight from a crescent moon. And that's even if you escape the city lights.
But all is not lost: You can still watch Slooh Observatory's livefeed from the Canary Islands.
Image: Quadrantids radiant / NASA/JPL
What's This About a Disappearing Constellation?
If you've been following Sky Guide since the beginning, you've probably noticed a trend: Meteor showers tend to be named for the constellation that gives the shower its radiant. So why isn't there a matching constellation for the Quadrantids' radiant?
There was — but we lost it.
Our list of constellations today comes from the International Astronomical Union, which recognises 88 official constellations. Before they started standardising in the early 20th-century, though, the list was a lot messier and included some constellations that overlapped each other. One of these now-defunct constellations was Quadrans Muralis.
Quadrans Muralis was a super-constellation composed of a combination of stars that are now part of three constellations: The Big Dipper, Bootes, and Dracos. It was cut almost 100 years ago in favour of a more distinct grouping of three individual constellations — but not before it had given its name to the meteor shower we'll see this weekend.
Image: 18th century plate of Quadrans Muralis constellation / Library of Congress
Follow the author at @misra