Put a big circle around January 4th, for a chance to catch a meteor display that even many lifelong skywatchers have never witnessed: the Quadrantids. They’re the first meteor shower of the new year! Unfortunately, for 2021, these showers will best be viewed by those living in the West and Hawaii.
The Quadrantids Radiant Point
These meteors appear to radiate from a spot in the sky midway between the last star in the handle of the Big Dipper and the head of Draco, the Dragon, but they officially radiate from within the boundaries of the constellation Boötes, The Herdsman. It’s rising in the northeast by around 1 a.m. local time and climbs higher until dawn. Watch whatever part of your sky is darkest, probably straight up.
So Why Aren’t They Called “The Bootids”?
We know that meteor showers are usually named for the constellation from which they appear to radiate, so why isn’t this shower named The Boötids?
The reason is that these showers were named for a constellation that no longer exists—Quadrans Muralis, the “Mural or Wall Quadrant.” It is a long-obsolete star pattern, invented in 1795 by J.J. Lalande to commemorate the instrument used to observe the stars in his catalogue. Adolphe Quetelet, of Brussels Observatory, discovered the shower in the 1830s and shortly afterward it was recognized by several astronomers in Europe and America, as well. Thus, the showers were named “Quadrantids,” the original name that continues to this day.
What’s in store for 2021?
This year’s Quadrantid meteor shower is predicted to occur six days after the full Moon. Thus, a bright gibbous Moon will curtail most attempts to view this fine annual shower, which is noted for its intense and sharply peaked display. This year, maximum activity for the “Quads,” which only lasts for a few hours, will occur at 10 a.m. EST and 7 a.m. PST, and will favor observers along the west coast of North America and Hawaii.
What this means for the Quadrantids, is that their very sharp peak will be missed in the Eastern US and will come around sunrise in the West. The Quadrantids produce 60 to 120 per hour, but six hours before and after the peak the rates are only about one-quarter as strong.
So Easterners will likely see rates of about 15 to 30/hr, while Westerners will likely see rates climb toward perhaps 40 to 80 or even 50 to 100 per hour before the sky gets too bright.
Thus, if the peak doesn’t fall between midnight and dawn for your part of the world, you miss out. The second problem is that this is the bitterest of the year’s principal meteor showers, taking place during the coldest month of the year. So if you’re lying still in a reclining chair or on the ground (or the snow), you’re not generating much heat. Stay warm!
by Astronomer Joe Rao.