What On Earth Are The “Quadrantids”?

Set your Star and Planet Locator for some time after midnight on the night of January 3rd into the morning of January 4th and you will see the kite-shaped constellation Bootes climbing over the northeastern horizon.  Look to its left and just under the end of the Big Dipper’s handle. At this relatively empty area of sky, there once existed a constellation named Quadrans Muralis. But when the constellations were reorganized by the International Astronomical Union in 1930, it was dropped as being too obscure.  It’s from this area that the meteors will appear to stream.


Rates for the Quadrantids can be as high as for the Perseids and Geminids under dark skies, 110 shooting stars per hour having been reported at its peak on occasion.  However, few have actually ever seen this display due to its narrow window of visibility and relative faintness of the meteors compared with those of the more famous showers.  A dark moonless night is needed to fully appreciate this neglected event.  Fortunately, the Moon will be a hair-thin crescent in the evening sky after sunset on the night of the shower, so its light will offer no interference this year (unlike last year when the Moon was just past Full).


While the meteors will appear to radiate from near the constellation Bootes, they are best seen looking overhead and facing toward the radiant, since they can actually appear anywhere in the sky as they brighten. And their numbers will increase after midnight, since the night side of our spinning Spaceship Earth will then be turned in the direction in space they are coming from. Stretched out on a lawn chair or laying on a heavy blanket works best. And be sure to bundle up against January’s winter chill and often high winds. So if clear skies prevail, this may be the year that you can count yourself among the select few to have witnessed the neglected and strangely-named Quadrantids!


— James Mullaney

Former assistant editor at Sky & Telescope magazine & author of 10 books on stargazing. His latest, Celebrating the Universe!, is available from HayHouse.com.