Quadrantid meteor shower 2023: How to see the first meteor shower of the new year
The first meteor shower of 2023 peaks tonight.
The Quadrantids are one of the strongest meteor showers of the year, with an hourly rate comparable to the Geminids in December (when we were offered excellent viewing) and the Perseids in August. The Quadrantid meteor shower often produces bright fireballs, however, viewing conditions for 2023 are less than ideal.
To make sure you get the most from the long, dark nights, be sure to check out our astronomy for beginners' guide and our full Moon calendar. For a full roundup of this year's meteor showers, we’ve got all the dates listed in our meteor shower calendar.
When can you see the Quadrantid meteor shower 2023 in the UK?
The Quadrantid meteor shower began on 28 December 2022 and will continue through to 12 January 2023. The shower reaches its peak tonight, 3-4 January, when we can expect to see a maximum of around 110 meteors per hour!
The Quadrantids are one of the strongest and most consistent meteor showers, with heightened activity for a few hours on either side of the peak. Numbers will drop off steeply over the following week, before the annual shower wraps up on 12 January. Unlike other meteor showers with peaks that can last for a couple of days, the Quadrantids have a sharp peak that only lasts for a few hours.
The shower peaks at 3am on 4 January, so the best time to look up and maximise your chances of spotting a Quadrantid is between around midnight tonight and 6am, before the sky lightens and the Sun rises at 8:05am (as seen from London).
However, conditions are looking rather grey and cloudy, and weather warnings for rain are in place for much of the UK until 6am on 4 January. So it may be a case of peering through the breaks in cloud cover - if we're lucky.
Where to look
If we do get lucky with the weather, the Quadrantid's radiant is actually in an extinct constellation, Quadrans Muralis (Latin for mural quadrant), which is where the shower gets its name. It's one of the forgotten constellations, and is now part of the Boötes constellation, near the Plough asterism in Ursa Major. The location from where the meteors appear to originate is called the radiant.
To find the radiant, extend the line of the handle in the Plough (called the Big Dipper in the US), following the arc of the handle until you come to Arcturus, a red giant in the constellation Boötes (although from our POV it shines more orange than red). The radiant is located between the end of the 'tail' in Ursa Major and the 'head' in Draco.
In the northern hemisphere (the southern hemisphere will very rarely see any activity), the radiant will remain low in the sky, around 20.4 degrees at midnight, but rising to 40.5 degrees by the peak at 3am. But you don't need to look directly at the radiant to see the meteors as they will be visible across the whole sky; just try to get as wide a view of the whole sky as possible.
How many meteors will we be able to see?
During the Quadrantid meteor shower, you can expect to see a peak of around 110-120 meteors per hour. The peak (known as the peak zenithal hourly rate, ZHR) is short and sharp, so it can be easily missed if clouds or a bright Moon spoil the occasion.
Activity varies year on year, and in reality, for 2023 it looks as though we'll be seeing considerably less. Even if we're offered a break in the clouds, there's still a nearly-full waxing gibbous Moon to contend with, so conditions could be better.
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Where do the Quadrantids come from?
Unlike most meteor showers that originate from comets, it is widely accepted that the Quadrantid meteor shower originates from the asteroid 2003 EH1. Asteroid 2003 EH1 is a relatively small asteroid with a diameter of around 3km (2 miles) across. It takes around 5.52 years to orbit the Sun, and it's possible that it is a dead comet, one that has previously shed its volatiles (carbon dioxide, frozen water etc).
Peter Jenniskens, who was part of the team that discovered the object in 2003, suggested that the shower is young (in astronomical terms), around 500 years. This tallies with a sighting of comet C/1490 Y1 back in late 1490 and into the early weeks of 1491, by observers in China, Japan and Korea. Are they dynamically related? It's possible that comet C/1490 Y1 broke apart, releasing a trail of dust that we now see as the Quadrantid meteors.
You don't need any special equipment to watch meteor showers, but here's how you can maximise your chances of spotting a Quadrantid:
- Meteors appear to originate from the radiant but can appear in any part of the sky.
- Get away from light pollution. Night temperatures on 3-4 January 2023 are expected to be mild (but wet), so waterproofs are a must. If you live in an area without light pollution, an alternative is to turn the indoor lights off and just look out of an upstairs window. It's not fancy, and you might not see as many, but it's a decent option for when you can't quite drag yourself outside.
- If the weather holds, lie back in a reclining chair and let your eyes adjust to the darkness. After a while, you'll become more accustomed to seeing meteor trails as they streak across the sky.
- Try not to look at other bright sources of light – including your phone – while you're meteor-spotting.
- If you need to check something on your phone, use a red filter. Because the rod cells in our eyes are not sensitive to red light, it doesn’t interrupt the accumulated night vision - this is why so many backyard astronomers use red filters.
- Similarly, if you're using a reference book, use a red light torch (or make your own) to illuminate the pages.
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