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Quadrantid Meteors

January 2, 2015

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 erase.

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 was used to plot the positions of stars. He carved the constellation 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.

Unfortunately, the Moon will be in view most of the night, so it’ll dampen the fireworks. To give the Quadrantids a try, though, find a safe, dark viewing spot, away from city lights. Then bundle up and enjoy the show — and a reminder of the changing landscape of the night sky.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2010, 2014

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