The Quadrantid meteor shower is always the first meteor shower of every new year, and 2016 is no exception. The good news is that, in 2016, the waning crescent moon shouldn’t too greatly disrupt the shower. Now the not-so-good news. Although the Quadrantides put out 50 or more meteors in a dark sky, the Quadrantids’ peak is very narrow. The peaks of the Perseid shower or Geminid shower persist more or less for a day or more, allowing all time zones around the world to enjoy a good display of Perseids and Geminids. Meanwhile, the peak of the Quadrantid meteor shower lasts only a few hours. So you have to be on the right part of Earth, the part that’s in nighttime – preferably with the radiant high in your sky – during those few hours of the shower’s peak, in order to see the most Quadrantid meteors. Follow the links below to learn more about the Quadrantids in 2016.
What is the peak date for the Quadrantid shower in 2016? Different sources might give different dates and precise times for meteor shower peaks. We are relying on the Observer’s Handbook 2016 and the International Meteor Organization (IMO) to help us out. Both of these sources give the date of peak on January 4, and the time at 8:00 Universal Time.
If that prediction holds true, the peak will be 2 a.m. for the central United States on January 4; in other words, the radiant point for this shower be above the horizon for us in the U.S. If the prediction holds, northeastern North America and Greenland may hold the advantage. But predictions aren’t always accurate, so from any northerly latitudes, try watching in the dark hours before dawn on January 4.
One note: The shower favors the Northern Hemisphere because its radiant point is so far north on the sky’s dome.
What time should I watch the Quadrantid meteor shower in 2016? All other things being equal, for any meteor showers, you are likely to see the most meteors when the radiant is high in the sky. In the case of the Quadrantid shower, the radiant point is seen highest in the sky in the dark hour before dawn.
Unlike most meteor showers, you have to hope that the narrow peak of Quadrantid shower happens at or near the same hour that the radiant point resides highest in your sky. Here’s that peak time again, according to the International Meteor Organization: January 4 at 8:00 Universal Time. Click here to translate Universal Time to your time zone.
Who will see the Quadrantid meteor shower best in 2016? The world map above shows the day and night sides of Earth at the instant of the predicted peak of the 2016 Quadrantids, before dawn on January 4. On the worldwide map above, the shadow line running to the west (left) of Europe and Africa represents sunrise.
Keep in mind that this forecast represents a best guess, not an ironclad guarantee as to when the peak will actually happen. If the peak of the shower comes as predicted – and that’s a big if – then northwestern Europe, northeastern North America and Greenland should be in a good place to watch this year’s Quadrantid meteor shower. If the peak comes a few hours later than predicted, the advantage would go to North America. If the peak comes earlier than expected, the advantage shifts over to Europe. Only time will tell.
The radiant point for the Quadrantid shower is highest up in the sky during the dark hour before dawn. So you are hoping the the shower will peak in the predawn hours. But die-hard meteor watchers outside the expected peak region in the Northern Hemisphere will brave the cold anyway, hoping to glimpse a meteor or two! Remember, the peak could come earlier or later than predicted.
Where is the radiant point for the Quadrantid shower? The radiant point of the Quadrantid shower makes an approximate right angle with the Big Dipper and the bright star Arcturus. If you trace the paths of the Quadrantid meteors backward, they appear to radiate from this point on the starry sky.
But you don’t need to find the meteor shower radiant to see the Quadrantid meteors. You have to be at mid-northern or far-northern latitudes, up in the wee hours of the morning and hope the peak comes at just the right time to your part of the world.
The Quadrantids are named for a constellation that no longer exists. Most meteor showers are named for the constellations from which they appear to radiate. So it is with the Quadrantids. But the Quadrantids’ constellation no longer exists. The name Quadrantids comes from the constellation Quadrans Muralis (Mural Quadrant), created by the French astronomer Jerome Lalande in 1795. This now-obsolete constellation was located between the constellations of Bootes the Herdsman and Draco the Dragon. Where did it go?
To understand the history of the Quadrantids’ name, we have to go back to the earliest observations of this shower. In early January 1825, Antonio Brucalassi in Italy reported that “the atmosphere was traversed by a multitude of the luminous bodies known by the name of falling stars.” They appeared to radiate from Quadrans Muralis. In 1839, Adolphe Quetelet of Brussels Observatory in Belgium and Edward C. Herrick in Connecticut independently made the suggestion that the Quadrantids are an annual shower.
But, in 1922, the International Astronomical Union devised a list 88 modern constellations. The list was agreed upon by the International Astronomical Union at its inaugural General Assembly held in Rome in May 1922. It did not include a constellation Quadrans Muralis. Today, this meteor shower retains the name Quadrantids, for the original and now obsolete constellation Quadrans Muralis.
The radiant point for the Quadrantids is now considered to be at the northern tip of Bootes, near the Big Dipper asterism in our sky, not far from Bootes’ brightest star Arcturus. It is very far north on the sky’s dome, which is why Southern Hemisphere observers probably won’t see many (if any) Quadrantid meteors. The meteors simply won’t make it above the horizon for Southern Hemisphere skywatchers.
Quadrantid meteors have a mysterious parent object. In 2003, astronomer Peter Jenniskens tentatively identified the parent body of the Quadrantids as the asteroid 2003 EH1. If indeed this body is the Quadrantids parent, then the Quadrantids, like the Geminid meteors, come from a rocky body – not an icy comet. Strange.
In turn, though, 2003 EH1 might be the same object as the comet C/1490 Y1, which was observed by Chinese, Japanese and Korean astronomers 500 years ago.
So the exact story behind the Quadrantids’ parent object remains somewhat mysterious.
Bottom line: The first meteor shower of 2016, the Quadrantid meteor shower, will probably be at its best before dawn January 4. This shower is best for the Northern Hemisphere because its radiant point is far to the north on the sky’s dome. In 2016, this shower shouldn’t suffer too greatly from the light of the waning crescent moon.
Bruce McClure has served as lead writer for EarthSky's popular Tonight pages since 2004. He's a sundial aficionado, whose love for the heavens has taken him to Lake Titicaca in Bolivia and sailing in the North Atlantic, where he earned his celestial navigation certificate through the School of Ocean Sailing and Navigation. He also writes and hosts public astronomy programs and planetarium programs in and around his home in upstate New York.