This week, the world will celebrate the start of a new decade on the Gregorian calendar. And there are few better ways to usher in 2020 than to turn your eyes skyward to witness the fiery debris of a wayward comet. The Quadrantid meteor shower will peak in visibility during the late evening of January 3 and predawn of January 4 in North America.
This narrow window, spanning just a few hours, might be a bit tough to catch without some serious dedication and a clear night sky. But even a brief glimpse might be worth the effort: Unlike many other meteor showers, the Quadrantids are famous for spitting out “fireball” meteors that blaze by in a dazzling array of unusual color and brightness.
First spotted and scientifically documented in the 1800s, the Quadrantids have an oddball origin story. Astronomers aren’t even sure where the meteors hail from. While Earth experiences most showers of this sort when it hurtles through the debris of comets—the solar system’s dirty snowballs—the Quadrantids were first thought to have been birthed from a body based more in rock than ice: an object called 2003 EH1.
First designated as an asteroid, 2003 EH1 may actually be a “dead comet,” one that’s shed its volatile ices after sojourning around the sun a few too many times, according to NASA. Others have noted that 2003 EH1 may share a history with the comet C/1490 Y1, described by Asian astronomers some 500 years ago.
The Quadrantids have also been subject to something of an identity crisis. Once named because they appeared to stream away from a northerly configuration of stars called the Quadrans Muralis, the Quadrantids now belong to no one: In 1922, the International Astronomical Union decided to jettison their namesake from the list of constellations, writes Elizabeth Howell for Space.com. Nowadays, a better way to spot the Quadrantids is to search for meteors that look like they’re radiating out from between the constellations of Boötes and Draco.
Whatever their roots, the Quadrantids can promise a show. Made up of larger hunks of matter than most meteors, they generate especially spectacular streaks in the sky when they collide with Earth’s atmosphere. But because our planet hits this cosmic dust trail at a perpendicular angle, our rendezvous with the Quadrantids will be brief.
According to the International Meteor Organization (IMO), the Quadrantids will crescendo just after 3 a.m. Eastern Standard Time on January 4. (To give your eyes time to adjust, head outdoors about half an hour before you begin scouring.) Not the most convenient of times, but chances are you won’t be jostling for viewing space—and the especially dark, moonless skies will only make the show more spectacular, reports Bruce McClure at EarthSky.
So brew some coffee, bundle up and get comfy somewhere well away from city lights. For those in especially dim parts of the Northern Hemisphere, more than 100 meteors might shimmer through the skies every hour. No promises, though: The Quadrantids can be as elusive as their origins.