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Quadrantids open new meteor season for 2014

Paul Sutherland, Feature writer
Jan 3, 2014, 0:00 UTC

Sen—Amateur astronomers can look forward to some fine displays of meteors, or shooting stars, in 2014, with the first major shower, the Quadrantids, reaching its climax today.

Here are some notes for prospects for meteor showers today, compiled with the help of the Society for Popular Astronomy’s Meteor Section. Note that peak rates quoted are predictions for ideal observing conditions if the radiant was overhead - the Zenithal Hourly Rate (ZHR) - which is unlikely ever to be the case, so take them as a guide only.

The Quadrantids have quite a sharp peak, lasting only a few hours, and this year it is expected to be centred around 19h UT.

Their ZHR is predicted to reach 80-120 meteors an hour for a single observer. The patient observer is likely to be rewarded with a view of several, given clear skies and an absence of streetlights and there will be no moonlight to spoil the view as the Moon’s phase was new on the first day of the month.

The Quadrantids are named after an obsolete constellation called Quadrans Muralis and the radiant from which their paths diverge is in the northern part of the modern constellation of Bootes, the herdsman. They can appear in any part of the sky so there is no need to watch the radiant area.

Though meteors may be seen on any night of the year, it is during showers that most activity occurs and for the next main shower we have to wait until April and the Lyrids. Main activity last from 18 to 25 April with maximum at 17h on 22 April. These meteors, left by Comet Thatcher, offer a ZHR of 15-20 an hour, but sometimes there are bursts of higher numbers. There will be some interference from moonlight in 2014 as Last Quarter occurs on 22 April.

The first of two showers in the year provided by dust from Halley’s Comet is the Eta Aquarids, which seem to radiate from Aquarius. Lasting from 19 April to 28 May, we can expect 50-70 meteors an hour on 5-6 May. A First Quarter Moon that does not set until late in the night will affect viewing.

One highlight for 2014 could be a new meteor shower for one night only, on 24 May, called the Camelopardalids. Though not observed before, Solar-System dust modellers are predicting that Earth will cross streams of meteor dust laid down by a comet called 209P/LINEAR.

SPA Meteor Section Director Tony Markham notes that several analysts have suggested that rates will peak at 100 or more an hour between 06h and 08h UT, radiating from the constellation of Camelopardalis, the giraffe, and that some are forecasting a meteor storm with more than 1,000 an hour for a short while. The Moon will not be a problem as it will be a thin crescent.

The number of meteor showers increases in the second half of the year and a summer season of shooting stars begins with the Delta Aquarids, which are active from 15 July to 25 August, peaking on 28-29 July at 15 meteors an hour. Moonlight will not be a problem.

Perseid meteor

A bright Perseid meteor photographed in 2013 by the writer. Credit: Paul Sutherland

One of the year’s favourite and most reliable showers, the Perseids, will be a challenge for observers at maximum on 12-13 August, despite a ZHR of 60-100 meteors. That is because the Moon will be very bright, having reached full on 10 August. However, Tony Markham points out that the Perseids are rich in bright meteors and you can make the best of things by observing with your back to the Moon. Because the Perseids are a long-lasting shower, starting in late July until well after maximum, another solution will be to observe away from the peak night.

This is a good year for another favourite shower of the year, the Orionids, because the Moon will be New and so out of the way at the time of maximum, 20-23 October. The shower has a predicted ZHR of 25 meteors an hour and its meteors, which again are debris left by Halley’s Comet, may be seen from 14 - 31 October.

A long-lasting shower is the Taurids, which begins in early October and lasts into late November and which has a broad peak from late to early November. Though rates of only 5-10 meteors an hour are predicted, and moonlight will interfere for several nights around 10 October and 8 November, the Taurids are rich in bright fireballs.

The Leonids are meteors which peak on the 17-18 November. The dust particles are not evenly spread along their orbit around the Sun but bunched so that activity is greatly heightened every 33 years or so. This is not such a year so the ZHR is predicted to be 15 at best. The good news is that moonlight will not interfere.

Last of the main showers of the year is normally the strongest. The Geminids might get more attention if they happened away from the cold winter nights for northerly latitudes because best rates peak at a ZHR of 100-120 an hour on 14 December. The build-up starts on 7 December and meteors may be seen until the 16th. The light from a Last Quarter Moon will give some slight interfence.