If you missed the spectacular Geminid meteor shower of mid-December — and many of us did because of bright moonlight — you’ve got another chance. Not with the Geminids, of course — they won’t return until next December — but with the Quadrantid shower, which peaks on the morning of Jan. 4, 2020.
Never heard of it? I’m not surprised; few beginning stargazers have. By anyone’s definition, the Quadrantids is an unusual meteor shower.
First off, there’s its name. A meteor shower is usually designated for the constellation out of which its meteors seem to radiate. But not the Quadrantids. Its name comes from an obsolete constellation of the 19th century, Quadrans Muralis, located just north of Boötes. The International Astronomical Union removed it in 1922 when the organization adopted the current list of 88 constellations.
Another odd fact about the Quadrantids is that no one seems to know its origin. Most meteor showers are caused by dusty particles boiled off passing comets, but astronomers have yet to find any such comet that matches the orbits of the Quadrantid meteoroids. So the puzzle remains.
Still another unusual fact about this shower is that, while most others can be watched for days, this one lasts for only a few hours. So with the Quadrantids, if you miss the few hours around its peak, you pretty much miss the entire thing.
The 2020 Quadrantids could provide a pretty good show for North American stargazers. It should reach its official peak on Jan. 4 at around 1 a.m. PST, so the best time to view it will be for a few hours before dawn that morning. Unlike December’s Geminids, the moon’s light will not interfere in the predawn sky.
Astronomers predict an hourly rate of 100-120 meteors might be possible for viewers far from city lights, and that’s every bit as good as a moonless Geminid shower of mid-December.
The Quadrantids appear to radiate from a point just north of Boötes, high in the eastern sky after midnight. Boötes, the herdsman, looks more like a kite with the bright yellowish-orange star Arcturus marking its tail. One can also imagine that it’s shaped like an arrow, which, conveniently, aims toward the shower’s radiant.
That’s not where you want to look, however. Remember, just like with every other meteor shower, you need to take in the entire sky with your eyes, and the best way to do that is to lie back on a sleeping bag or lawn chair. Dress warmly, though. It will be cold!
Meteors can appear anywhere in the sky, but you will know that they are true Quadrantids by tracing their paths backward. If these appear to converge near the radiant, their meteors are indeed part of the shower. If they don’t, they are just “sporadic meteors” caused by random interplanetary dust particles striking the Earth’s atmosphere.
For now, though, as our tiny blue world completes yet another journey around its life-giving star, I’d like to wish each of my readers a happy, healthy and safe new year. I truly hope your stars shine ever more brightly in 2020, and that our paths cross many times!
— Dennis Mammana is an astronomy writer, author, lecturer and photographer working from under the clear dark skies of the Anza-Borrego Desert in the San Diego County backcountry. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: @dennismammana. The opinions expressed are his own.