Get Ready for the Quadrantids, the First Meteor Shower of the New Year

Quadrantids, ISS

Astronaut Christina Koch took this photo of the Quadrantid meteor shower as the International Space Station passed over Edmonton, Canada, around 4:30 a.m. local time on Jan. 4, 2020. She also captured an aurora over the region around the same time. NASA

While many cultures celebrate the start of each Gregorian calendar year with fireworks, there’s a show of celestial pyrotechnics you can watch instead. Though less well-known than some other meteor showers, the Quadrantids occur during the start of the calendar year, and are expected to peak early morning Jan. 4, 2023 (i.e., late night on Jan. 3). A bright moon will lower visibility so you may want to wait until just before dawn, when the moon has set, to view this shower. The Quadrantids usually occur between mid-December and mid-January with a peak in early January.

At their peak, the Quadrantids are as active a meteor shower as others during the year including the Perseids in August and Geminids in December. However, most people don’t catch this meteor shower. This is in part because the peak of activity is much shorter than other active meteor showers, typically lasting just eight hours and sometimes in the middle of the day for certain time zones. During this peak window, you may see as many as 120 meteors per hour under ideal conditions, but may be less.

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Those in the Southern Hemisphere aren’t likely to see the Quadrantids because their radiant (the point in the sky from which they appear to come) is very far north.

Meteor showers are leftover icy debris from comets; as Earth orbits the sun, the planet comes into contact with this debris, which burns up on entry into Earth’s atmosphere, producing a visible shower of meteors.

Where Did the Quadrantids Come From?

The source of the Quadrantids meteor shower was a mystery for most of the past two centuries this meteor shower has been observed. It is hypothesized that the Quadrantids are a relatively young meteor shower, beginning within the last 500 years. Originally, scientists thought it was possibly related to a comet originally observed by Chinese, Japanese and Korean astronomers (now called C/1490 Y1). Some astronomers believe that this comet, now recognized as the asteroid 2003 EH1, may be the source of the Quadrantids.

Adding to the mystery around this meteor shower, the constellation this shower is named for is now obsolete; the constellation Quadrans Muralis was created in the late 18th century but absorbed into the constellation Boötes (The Plowman) in the early 20th century.

To spot the Quadrantids, look for the Big Dipper in the sky. Following the “handle” of the constellation, you can see the origin point for most meteors in the space between the final star and the constellation Draco. Another way to spot the Quadrantids is by looking for the orange giant Arcturus, the fourth-brightest star in the night sky. Arcturus is part of the Boötes constellation, guiding you to spot from where these meteors appear to radiate.

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Originally Published: Dec 29, 2020