Quadrantid meteor shower 2021: when it is, how to see it

Start 2021 with the first major meteor shower of the year. Read our guide to find out when the Quadrantid meteor shower is, and how to see one.

The Quadrantids is the first of the major annual meteor showers in 2021. The Quadrantid meteor shower promises swift meteors and the shower is expected to peak at 14:30 UT on 3 January 2021. The best time to look for Quadrantid meteors will be on the nights of 2/3 and 3/4 January.

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However, a waning gibbous Moon will cause problems this year, its glare drowning out all but the brighter trails.

The Quadrantid meteor shower radiant is located between Draco, Boötes, Ursa Major and Hercules. Credit: Pete Lawrence
The Quadrantid meteor shower radiant is located between Draco, Boötes, Ursa Major and Hercules. Credit: Pete Lawrence

How many Quadrantid meteors will I be able to see?

The Quadrantids’ peak ZHR (zenithal hourly rate) is around 120 meteors per hour but can vary. The highest observed rates have approached 600 meteors per hour, while the lowest have dipped to just 60 meteors per hour.

However, note that the ZHR figure is a normalised value of what you could expect to see under perfect conditions. It’s used to allow comparison between meteor showers and doesn’t represent what you’ll actually see.

The visual hourly rate is often significantly lower than the quoted ZHR and varies over the course of a night.

Watching a meteor shower doesn't require any fancy equipment: just clear, dark skies, warm clothing and some good company. Credit: Anthony Sabatino / EyeEm / Getty Images
Watching a meteor shower doesn’t require any fancy equipment: just clear, dark skies, warm clothing and some good company. Credit: Anthony Sabatino / EyeEm / Getty Images

The Quadrantids’ peak is typically rather narrow at just a few hours wide. As the expected peak is roughly in the middle of the day on 3 January, it means remaining activity in the periods of darkness before and after the peak is likely to be rather low.

The shower’s radiant – the point from which the meters appear to emanate in the night sky – is located in the region of sky between Draco, Boötes, Ursa Major and Hercules.

It’s a region that used to be occupied by the now defunct constellation Quadrans Muralis, the Mural Quadrant, hence the shower’s name.

The Quadrantid meteor shower reaches peak activity at 14:30 UT 0n 3 January 2021 in daylight. A meteor watch on the night of 2/3 January will see the build up to the peak, while one on the 03/04 will see its decline. Credit: Pete Lawrence
The Quadrantid meteor shower reaches peak activity at 14:30 UT 0n 3 January 2021 in daylight. A meteor watch on the night of 2/3 January will see the build up to the peak, while one on the 03/04 will see its decline. Credit: Pete Lawrence

How to see a Quadrantid meteor

Meteor observing doesn’t require any telescopes or fancy equipment. All you need is your naked eye and, preferably, some good company.

Find a place dark and free of light pollution: somewhere away from towns and cities, provided it is safe to do so and within local COVID guidelines.

If you do happen to live away from light pollution and can observe from the comfort of your own garden, turn off all lights so your view isn’t affected. You’ll already have the light of the Moon to contend with!

Avoid using lights such as torches and mobile phones as this will spoil your adapted night vision. If you really need to, use a red torch or turn your phone’s screen red in the settings.

A Quadrantid meteor appears in the night sky along with the Milky Way and the Aurora over Banff National Park, Canada, 3 January 2009. Credit: Stocktrek Images / Getty Images
A Quadrantid meteor appears in the night sky along with the Milky Way and the Aurora over Banff National Park, Canada, 3 January 2009. Credit: Stocktrek Images / Getty Images

It may take about 20 minutes for your eyes to adapt to the darkness, but  after a while you should start to see more stars and, hopefully, some meteors shooting across the sky.

As you’re observing in January, remember to wrap up warm, bring something to eat and perhaps a hot drink as well.

Use a star chart or stargazing app to find Draco, Boötes, Ursa Major and Hercules, look around this region of the sky and, if you happen to see a meteor shooting away from it during the shower’s activity period, chances are you’ve just seen a Quadrantid.

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Pete Lawrence is an experienced meteor shower observer and a co-host of The Sky at Night.