Quadrantid meteor shower and observing session

Posted on 2016-01-04 21:37

I went out last night with my youngest for a meteor shower watching party which had been scheduled from 9 to 11 up at the school. It was colder than its been all season, but the sky was clear and the moon was last quarter and hadn't risen as yet. We bundled up really well, brought out some camp chairs and blankets and a pair of (I thought) decent binocs. As the night went on these became nearly inoperable in the 27-28F temps, and I've read that better quality binocs don't have that problem.

The teacher got the kids organized and looking up and gave some opening remarks before introducing her guest for the night who turned out to be my favorite professor from when I was working on my masters at Stony Brook, Dan Davis! He had brought out two telescopes, both Dobsonians, one an immense 14" and I believe the other was either a 10" or 12" and was busily assembling and collimating them. To collimate basically means to align the mirrors so that the image is as perfect as possible. This video gives you an idea of what is involved (keep in mind this was being done in the dark).

Dobsonians are reflector type (as opposed to the classic refractor which is basically a long tube like a spyglass which Gallileo would have used). Reflectors allow for much larger aperatures as above, but they can be a bear to lug around and set up. The trade off is on how much work you're willing to do for this hobby. I felt it was going to be too much work to lug out the little 3" reflector we have so you know which end of the spectrum I'm on.

stellarium-000We checked out the Orion nebula (fuzzy patch around the middle star of Orion's belt) and I was flabbergasted at how incredibly well I could make out the Orion Nebula through the 14" Dob. What was barely a smudge through the binocs became a wispy cloud in that thing, without any of the false color you get used to in images of it on the internet of course but clear and distinct if dimmer than I expected it to be.

stellarium-001Turning our attention more to the west we checked out the Andromeda galaxy and its companion galaxy M32. Finding these takes a little more patience. Look for the great square of Pegasus, which at this time of the year and night appears as a diamond. One of the corners of the square has a couple stars near it (the others are lone stars) go from there around the square counter-clockwise one corner. Start tracing outward from that corner up to a bright star (Mirach) which is about one length of the square away with that distance divided by a slightly less bright star at half distance. Andromeda is off to the right, a small fuzzy patch perhaps but still (barely) visible galaxy of stars!

The Quadrantid meteor shower is not an impressive one historically, although it does seem to be annual, if short-lived. All meteor showers are named for the constellation from which the meteors appear to radiate but in the case of this one, the name sake constellation Quadrans Muralis, created in 1795 is no longer a recognized constellation by the IAU, the stars of which are now understood to be part of Bootes. The Quadrantid have managed to retain their archaic name despite this. If you're not familiar with Bootes, look for the Big Dipper and trace a line out beyond the first three stars of the handle about that distance again.

We had to leave earlier than I would have liked due to my little one's cold toes but it was a good night. Only saw a few short meteors while we were there but observing with binoculars and telescopes made the time well worth it!

If you'd like to spend some time looking for meteors but missed the Quadrantid or just would rather stay inside where its warm, check out the Slooh Observatory video cast of the shower at:

http://live.slooh.com/stadium/live/quadrantid-meteor-shower-2016

(images on this post from Stellarium)