2021 will be a lackluster year to see the annual Quadrantid meteor shower during its sharp peak overnight on Saturday (Jan. 2) and into the early morning hours of Sunday (Jan. 3).
The Quadrantid meteor shower is not as well-known as other meteor showers like the Geminids or Orionids, because the meteors are fainter and easier to miss. However, they can produce fireballs with giant, glowing tails highlighting the meteors' paths across the sky.
"A lot of meteor showers last days — the Quadrantids last a few hours," NASA meteor expert Bill Cooke told Space.com. As many as 100 Quadrantid meteors can be seen some years during the peak when Earth plows through the thickest part of the debris stream, Cooke said, but only if skies are dark enough. Because they're faint, it's easy to miss many of the Quadrantids streaking across the sky.
When to see them
According to the International Meteor Organization, the Quadrantids run from Dec. 28 to Jan. 12, with a sharp peak on Jan. 2 and 3. That means that outside the peak time — which occurs during early morning hours for observers in North America — meteor rates may be low. Skywatchers may see around 15 to 25 meteors per hour this year.
During the peak, the moon will be about 81% full and could wash out meteors from the the Quadrantid display. "The moon will be a nuisance for the expected Quadrantid meteor shower," the International Meteor Organization states in its 2021 meteor shower calendar, adding that viewers can expect to see the most meteors around 9:30 a.m. EST (1430 GMT) on Sunday. Of course, only observers on the night side of Earth during the brief peak will have a chance to see that meteor shower.
So, the best time to go out and look for Quadrantid meteors will be after the moon has set, when the moonlight won't interfere with your view of the dark night sky.
To find the radiant, or the point from which the meteors appear to emanate, you will need to look for the constellation Bootes. The easiest way to find it is to look north for the Big Dipper. Then, follow the "arc" of the Big Dipper's handle across the sky to the red giant star Arcturus, which anchors the bottom of Bootes.
If you happen to catch the shower at an off-peak moment, there will still be plenty of meteors to spot. In the past, Cooke has recommended keeping Bootes in your field of view, but looking slightly away so that you catch the meteors with the longer tails.
Where do they come from?
The Quadrantids are thought to be associated with asteroid 2003 EH1, which is likely an extinct comet, Cooke has told Space.com. "It was either a piece of a comet or a comet itself, and then it became extinct," which means that all the ice and other volatiles on the comet have evaporated, he said.
The asteroid has a perihelion (closest approach to the sun) just inside the Earth's orbit, which is pretty far away in celestial terms. Scientists also think that the asteroid may have some connection to the Comet 96P/Machholtz, a comet that orbits the sun once every six years. First observations of the Quadrantids shower appear to be in Europe in the 1820s and 1830s.
How to get the best view
Binoculars and telescopes are not useful for meteor showers; your eyes are enough to see the shooting stars streaking overhead. Find a dark sky and give your eyes about 20-30 minutes to adjust.
Dress warmly and face a little away from the radiant in Bootes to catch the longer-streaking meteors.
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