This meteor shower radiating from a forgotten constellation is one of the most prolific of the year but not as popular as other showers. This year the Moon is mostly out of the way so it could be a good one.
It peaks on the night of 3 – 4 January 2020, which could explain why it’s so rarely observed. It’s often very cold, it’s just after New Year and even though the shower ranges from about 27 December to 10 January, the actual peak is quite narrow, so you really only have one night – a few hours actually – to see a good number of meteors. Unfortunately, they’re mostly not the brightest of meteors, often around the mag. 3 – 6 range, so you need a dark sky.
The Zenith Hourly Rate (ZHR) for the Quadrantids is about 120 meteors per hours. This is the rate you would observe if the radiant was overhead at the time of maximum. From Edinburgh you could see up to 100 meteors per hour in the early hours of the morning and with the 61% illuminated Moon setting just before 1am it shouldn’t interfere too much. So if you’re on your way home from a little celebration and look up you might just catch a few… just be careful not to fall over!
It’s not totally certain what the parent body of the Quadrantids is but might be minor planet 2003 EH which may also be comet C/1490 Y1, observed by Chinese, Japanese and Korean astronomers about 500 years ago.
The chart above shows the radiant of the shower – the point in the sky from where the meteors appear to radiate. The name Quadrantids comes from an old constellation Quadrans Muralis (Mural Quadrant) created by the French astronomer Jérôme Lalande in 1795. The Quadrantids themselves were first seen in 1825.
Observing and imaging the Quadrantids
Wrap up warm! It is December after all and you don’t want to miss the display because you’re too cold.
You don’t need anything other than a little patience to observe the Quadrantids. Just lie back in a reclining chair if you can (saves a lot of neck pain) and look up. The advice is usually to look about 30-40 degrees away from the radiant and about 60 degrees up to get a good chance of seeing more meteors. But remember meteors can appear in any part of the sky at any time. The closer to the radiant they are, the shorter the trails will be – further away trails appear longer.
To image meteors a camera on a fixed tripod is sufficient, preferably with a remote shutter release, but this is not essential as you can use the camera’s delay timer. The length of exposure you can use without stars appearing to trail is dependent on the focal length of the lens you are using. A basic rule of thumb is to divide 500 by the focal length of the lens, and that gives you the exposure in seconds. For example, a 28mm focal length lens should be able to do 18 seconds without any significant trails showing. Work out what the best ISO is for your camera to make it as sensitive as possible without introducing too much noise. Something between 800 and 3200 should be fine.
Because stars are faint and small your auto-focus may not work well – or at all – so you will probably have to focus the camera manually. This is critical! There’s no point spending an evening taking hundreds of exposures only to find that all of them are blurred afterwards. Take some time over this to get it spot on. Here’s a tutorial on using Live View to get the focus right.
If you manage to image or observe the Quadrantids, please post your images and observations to our Flickr group, Facebook page or Twitter feed.
Article: Mark Phillips