The astronomers of the 18th century were enthralled by the new tools available to scientists and explorers. They created several new constellations to honor these inventions -- the telescope, for example, along with the microscope, the sextant, and the pendulum clock. All of these constellations are still in use today.
Another one has been largely forgotten, but it reminds us of its presence tonight with a meteor shower -- the Quadrantids. They're named for the extinct constellation Quadrans Muralis. It honored the wall quadrant -- a 90-degree arc attached to a wall that was aligned north and south. By sighting along the arc, astronomers could accurately measure the altitude of stars and planets.
Quadrans Muralis occupied a space that's bordered by Bootes, Hercules, and Draco. That region rises around midnight, and is in the northeast at first light. And if you trace the paths of the Quadrantid meteors, they all appear to "rain" into Earth's atmosphere from that region of the sky.
The Quadrantid shower is usually pretty reliable. At its peak, you might see a few dozen "shooting stars" per hour. But the peak is short -- only an hour or two. And the number of meteors before and after the peak trails off in a hurry.
This is a pretty good year for the Quadrantids. They're at their best early tomorrow morning. The Moon sets before then, so it shouldn't interfere with the show -- a reminder of an otherwise-forgotten constellation.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2008
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