Put a big circle around Saturday, 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!
In the United States and Canada, those living in eastern locations can expect maximum activity at about 3 a.m. EST, when the radiant of the shower will be well up in the northeastern sky. But you might be able to spot meteors as early as 10 pm local time. At peak, viewers can usually expect to see anywhere from 60 to 200 meteors per hour. These are moderately swift meteors, many leaving trains. Just be sure you have a dark sky, and give your eyes at least 15 to 20 minutes to adjust to the dark. Oh, and bundle up!
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 2020?
Here is the enticement to leave that nice warm bed and head outside to go “Quad hunting” during the predawn hours of January 4th: The Quads are supposed to be one of the richest annual showers, with peak rates of 60 to 200 meteors visible per hour under ideal conditions. And this year offers excellent circumstances for North Americans, especially in the East. The Quadrantids are predicted to peak around 4 a.m. Eastern Standard Time/1 a.m. Pacific Standard Time. The waxing gibbous moon sets about 1 a.m. local time, leaving the sky fully dark until dawn begins around 6 a.m.
With input from Astronomer Joe Rao.