Quadrantid Meteors

StarDate: January 2, 2011

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The stars are eternal -- by human standards, anyway. But their constellations are not. That's because the constellations were drawn by people. And what one person draws, another can redraw.

Consider, for example, the constellation Quadrans Muralis. It's the namesake for the year's first meteor shower, the Quadrantids. That's because the meteors all appear to "rain" into Earth's atmosphere from that direction. But you won't find Quadrans Muralis on any modern starchart.

French astronomer Joseph Lalande drew the constellation in 1795. He named it for the wall quadrant, an astronomical instrument that he used to plot the positions of stars. He carved it out of a relatively barren patch of sky that's bounded by Bootes, Draco, and Hercules.

Although several of Lalande's constellations caught on, this one didn't. Yet the meteor shower still bears the name of the extinct constellation.

The shower itself should be at its best tomorrow night. If you trace the paths of the meteors across the sky, they all appear to originate in Hercules. But they can streak across any part of the sky, so you don't need to look at Hercules to see them.

There's no moonlight to dampen the fireworks, so it could be a good performance. You need to find a safe, dark viewing spot, away from the glow of city lights. Then bundle up against the cold and enjoy the show -- and a reminder of the changing landscape of the night sky.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2010

For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.

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