Early January sees the annual maximum of the Quadrantid meteor shower. Meteors – popularly known as ‘shooting stars’ – are the result of small particles entering the Earth’s atmosphere at high speed. These heat the air around them, causing the characteristic streak of light seen from the ground.
The Quadrantids appear to emanate from a point located in the defunct constellation Quadrans Muralis, not far from the familiar asterism of the Plough. They are best viewed in the Northern Hemisphere and just after midnight on 4 January, with around 80 or more expected per hour from dark sites. A waning crescent Moon, which is only 29 per cent illuminated, will not cause too much interference.
The beauty of watching a meteor shower is that you don’t need any equipment other than your eyes. You should find a dark spot with a wide-open view overhead and, in order to watch the sky in comfort, a reclining chair or a blanket that you can lay on the ground is ideal. It is also essential to wrap up warm.
Any light pollution will cut down the number of meteors visible. The best views are on the outskirts of towns and cities and away from artificial light. If you need to find your way around or look at a star map, then you should use a red flashlight to preserve your night vision. Remember, that you should allow 20 minutes for your eyes to adapt to the dark.
The spectacle provides an exciting opportunity for astrophotographers, so don’t forget to send your images of any meteors you manage to capture to firstname.lastname@example.org for a chance to be featured in the print edition of All About Space magazine!