The Quadrantids: The First of Three Major Meteor Showers of 2021

Image Credit: Lamberto Sassoli

Welcome to 2021! Hopefully, you managed to make some New Year’s resolutions and planned your astronomical calendar for the year. If not yet, you can make use of our recent article about the most notable space-related events of 2021. And let the first stargazing event of the year be the spectacular Quadrantids! Or not so spectacular in 2021? Read to find out.

What is the Quadrantid meteor shower?

Not so well-known Quadrantids are actually one of the “big three” meteor showers on the planet Earth. The other two you most likely know — the Perseids and the Geminids. In comparison, an hourly rate of meteors for the Perseids is 100; however, the Quadrantids produce around 120 meteors per hour. So why are the other two popular every year and the Quadrantids not?

The Quadrantids’ period of activity lasts from December 27, 2020, to January 10, 2021, with a peak on January 3. In the Northern Hemisphere, where the meteor shower is well observable, the weather is cold this time of year, so it’s not so comfortable to hunt for “shooting stars”. In the Southern Hemisphere, the Quadrantids are simply hard to see because the maximum altitude of the radiant in the dark is 20° below the horizon.

Meteors of this stream are also much dimmer in comparison to the Perseids or the Geminids. So despite its high meteor hourly rate, they are less impressive.

What time is the Quadrantid meteor shower?

Unlike with other meteor showers, with the Quadrantids, you need to be right on time. All meteor showers have a peak. They’re streams of dust and debris in space that the Earth’s orbit enters and exits, and when it’s in the densest part of a stream, the “peak” of the shooting star activity happens. The Quadrantid stream is dense yet narrow, so its peak is short — just about six hours. According to IMO, in 2021, the peak is expected on January 3, at 14:51 GMT. Look for the meteors three hours before and after the exact time to experience the entire peak.

Where can I see the Quadrantids?

The Quadrantids are best observable from the Northern Hemisphere. Observers from the Southern Hemisphere will probably see only a few meteors, because of the Quadrantids’ radiant position.

If the predictions about the peak are accurate, western North America has an excellent viewing opportunity during the predawn hours on January 3. Any place at mid-northern and far-northern latitudes might be decent to watch the Quadrantids in 2021, although the bright 84% full Moon will surely wash out a lot of meteors. But don’t give up — this meteor shower can produce bright fireballs and still might provide an exciting show in the sky.

What is the source of the Quadrantid meteor shower?

The source of the Quadrantids is unknown. In 2003, astronomer Peter Jenniskens came to the conclusion that the parent body of this meteor shower is the asteroid 2003 EH1. On the other hand, 2003 EH1 might be the same object as the comet C/1490 Y1, which was observed by Chinese, Japanese, and Korean astronomers 500 years ago. If the asteroid is indeed the Quadrantids’ parent body, then this stream is the second major one, together with the Geminids, that comes from a rocky body but not an icy comet.

What does the Quadrantid mean?

All meteor showers take their name after a constellation their radiant point is placed in. But the Quadrantids seem to be the exception, because their radiant point is located in the constellation Boötes, near the Big Dipper asterism. So where did this name come from?

This January major meteor shower is named after an old and now unused constellation called Quadrans Muralis. It was a constellation created by the French astronomer Jerome Lalande in 1795. Along with a few other constellations, Quadrans Muralis was removed from the list of modern constellations in 1922. Most of Quadrans Muralis ended up in Boötes, but the Quadrantids kept its name, most likely because there’s already a minor shower emanating from Boötes during January — the Boötids.

This was our first stargazing suggestion in 2021. We hope you enjoyed this information. If so, share it on social media, and don’t forget to send us your feedback — we appreciate it!

Wishing you clear skies and happy stargazing!

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