The annual Quadrantid meteor shower peaks on the night of 3/4 January and, as one of the recognised major meteor showers of the year, there’s a great chance to see at least dozens of shooting stars each hour, especially as the Moon will not interfere this year. Furthermore, watching for meteors is one of the few major branches of observational astronomy where expensive or specialised equipment is not needed. To enjoy the show try to find an observing site free from major light pollution and with a good view towards the north and east.
The Quadrantids belongs to an exclusive club of annual meteor showers whose zenithal hourly rate (ZHR is the likely rate of meteors seen by a single observer assuming a radiant lying at the zenith under perfect observing conditions; not surprisingly, actual observed rates are always much lower) commonly is in excess of a hundred meteors per hour. This ranks it alongside the very popular August Perseids and December Geminids. In 2022, both of these showers are blighted by strong moonlight, and therefore, given a clear sky and rates of meteors in line with expectations, the Quadrantids could prove to be the best meteor shower of the year.
To get the best out of any meteor shower one needs to know roughly what part of the sky to watch in order to see the maximum number of meteors. Annual meteor showers are named for the constellation in which the radiant is found; Gemini hosts the Geminids, Perseus the Perseids, and so on. So where do we look for the Quadrantids?
The Quadrantids comes from the obsolete constellation of Quadrans Muralis, which was invented in the 1790s by the French astronomer Joseph Jérôme de Lalande. Quadrans represented the wall-mounted quadrant he used for measuring star positions at the observatory of the École Militaire (Military Academy) in Paris. In 1801, the constellation appeared Latinised as Quadrans Muralis in German astronomer Johann Bode’s massive Uranographia star atlas.
Quadrans Muralis occupied what is now the northern part of Boötes, near the end of the Plough’s handle. The Quadrantid’s radiant lies roughly between magnitude +4 theta (θ) Boötis and magnitude +3.9 tau (τ) Herculis – RA 15h 18m, Dec +49.5 degrees.
In 2022, the Quadrantid meteor shower is active between 1 and 6 January. The great news is that this year’s show can be enjoyed without any annoying and frustrating glow from the Moon, which is ‘new’ on 2 January. The shower’s peak is predicted for around 8.40pm GMT (20:40 UT) on the evening of 3 January, which is not such good news for UK observers.
Although the Quadrantid radiant (the point in the sky from which meteors appear to emanate) is circumpolar (never setting) from mid-northern latitudes (which encompasses the UK), it languishes low above the northern horizon at around the time of the peak of the shower. Observers will have to wait until about 2am GMT for the radiant to climb to a decent altitude of around 40 degrees. Unfortunately, the Quadrantid maximum, the time period during which rates of observed meteors peak, is short and sweet, limited to a time-frame of between four and six hours. This means there could be a drop-off in the number of shooting stars seen just as the radiant becomes well placed in the north-eastern sky.
However, one can never be totally confident when predicting rates of meteors. Unexpected activity can break out at anytime for any meteor shower. In 2012, the Quadrantid’s ZHR reached only 80, but it increased to probably exceed 150 in a particularly strong return in 2014. Indeed, a storm was reported for a brief period on the day after the main peak! Hopefully this year, rates will remain on the high side until the radiant climbs in the north-east after midnight.
Under a dark sky on a transparent night, a catch of 50 to 60 meteors per hour is not unreasonable hope. The Quadrantids often produce bright events, including fireballs, and they can be coloured yellow and blue. The only way not to miss out is to wrap up warm and head out into the cold January night to see for yourself!
If you plan to stay out for an extended period make sure you wear layers of warm clothing, including a couple of pairs of warm socks, gloves and a wooly hat. Also have a hot drink and a snack or two to hand. It’s best to take regular breaks from staring at the sky; perhaps limit each stint to around 90 minutes.