Related: More space travel and astronomy news
What is the Quadrantid meteor shower?
Every January, the Earth passes through a narrow stream of space dust during its orbit around the sun, and this causes the Quadrantid meteor shower. At its peak, it can produce about 120 shooting stars per hour, lighting up as they strike Earth’s atmosphere at 26 miles per second. However, it’s more likely that you’ll see about 25 shooting stars in that time (unless you’re under a completely clear and inky black rural sky). Although shooting stars from the Quadrantids tend to be relatively faint, it’s a meteor shower that can often produce bright “fireballs,” so patience is key — if you can stand the cold.
When is the Quadrantid meteor shower?
While most meteor showers build to a crescendo over a few days, the Quadrantids peak during just six hours, so you have to be quick and precise to see this shower. The best time to look in 2020 is after midnight on January 3 — the predawn hours are prime viewing time for this meteor shower. The International Meteor Organization gives the peak as January 4 at 08:20 UTC, which is 3:20 a.m. EST and 12:20 a.m. PST. That might sound inconvenient, but North America is actually very lucky; not only is that when the Quadrantids will be at their brief peak, but it’s also when the night skies will be darkest, since the first quarter moon will have set.
How to find shooting stars
Shooting stars from the Quadrantid meteor shower come from the constellation of Boötes, part of which used to be called Quadrans Muralis, hence the name “Quadrantids.” In January, Boötes is right below the easily recognisable Big Dipper in the northeastern night sky. Just look north around the end of the Big Dipper’s handle, and you’ll have an excellent chance of seeing some shooting stars from this “radiant point,” though they can appear anywhere in the sky. It’s for that reason that the Quadrantids are tricky to see south of the equator.
What causes the Quadrantid meteor shower?
Astronomers aren’t quite sure. It’s thought that the stream is relatively new, and it may come from a minor planet or asteroid in the solar system called 2003 EH, or perhaps a comet called C/1490 Y1. Whatever the cause, a cloud of dust and debris is left in Earth’s way, creating the perfect environment for a yearly meteor shower.
When is the next strong meteor shower?
There are three powerful meteor showers every year: January’s Quadrantids, August’s Perseids (with 100 shooting stars per hour), and December’s Geminids (with 120 shooting stars per hour). Most people see the Perseids because August is an ideal time to spend an evening stargazing. If you want to see shooting stars before August, look out for the Lyrid meteor shower in April. This shower will peak on the night of April 21-22 just after a New Moon, and conditions will be ideal to see about 20 shooting stars per hour.