How to view the Quadrantid meteor shower in 2020

The first week of the New Year brings us one of the most promising meteor showers for 2020, the Quadrantids. The display will reach a sharp peak on the night of the 3rd/4th of January.

A bright Quadrantid meteor, close to the head of Draco, captured during the 2016 display. Image credit: Paul Sutherland

Conditions are excellent for viewing the shower because, although the Moon’s phase will be just past First Quarter, it will set less than an hour after midnight, depending where you are. This will leave several hours of darkness during which you can watch for meteors.

The shower’s radiant – the point in the sky from which the meteors’ paths all diverge when traced back – is in the far northern sky.

Maximum activity from the Quadrantids is expected in the early hours of the morning of the 4th of January. Rates are predicted to be high, with a ZHR (zenithal hourly rate) possibly reaching 120.

This is the number per hour that a single observer might see under optimum conditions, with a perfectly clear, dark sky and with the radiant overhead. So don’t expect to see quite so many, though it could still be quite a show!

A diagram to show the position of the radiant of the Quadrantid meteor shower on the night of maximum. The meteors themselves can appear anywhere in the sky. Artwork: Skymania.com

The peak is short lived, lasting just a few hours, so rates are expected to be very low on the nights either side of maximum, even though the start and end dates for shower activity are officially December 27 and January 10. The UK and Europe are particularly favoured for the shower’s peak this year.

The Quadrantids are named after the obsolete constellation of Quadrans Muralis, and today the radiant lies in northern Boötes. For this reason, the shower is sometimes also called the Boötids.

Because the radiant is so far north, this is a shower that favours the northern hemisphere. (You can only see meteors from a shower if its radiant is above the local horizon). Since it is winter in the northern hemisphere, this means that the nights can be very cold, which might explain why the Quadrantids are not better known and more observed.

The now obsolete constellation of Quadrans Muralis is depicted here, top left, in one of a set of cards, called Urania’s Mirror, published in 1824

Meteors are the glows produced by streams of dust particles left by comets, and are usually no bigger than grains of sand, though with more the consistency of instant coffee granules! The major meteor showers of the year have long had their parent comets identified, but the one that produced the Quadrantids remained a mystery until the early years of the new Millennium.

Then, in 2003, leading NASA meteor expert Peter Jenniskens identified the stream of meteoroid particles that produce the Quadrantids with a near-Earth asteroid discovered the same year, and labelled 2003 EH1. It seems likely therefore that 2003 EH1 is actually the extinct nucleus of a comet rather than a normal asteroid.

The richness of the Quadrantid shower at its peak makes it well worth observing when weather and sky conditions allow, so if you do get the chance, wrap up warm and make the most of it! Follow our advice on how to observe a meteor shower. You will also find helpful tips on how to photograph a meteor shower.


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