In 2021, a full schedule of meteor showers will be visible in the sky, having already started with the Quadrantids in January.
Every year our skies are illuminated by repeat meteor showers, from Geminids and Draconids to Perseids and Lyrids. If the weather conditions are favourable, and the Moon isn’t too bright, it is possible to see spectacular shooting stars.
But when, where and how can you see the meteor showers of 2021? We’ve compiled a complete guide, below.
What exactly is a meteor shower?
A meteor shower occurs when Earth passes through the debris stream occupying the orbit of a comet or, in simpler terms, when a number of meteors flash across the sky from roughly the same point.
Meteors are sometimes called shooting stars, although they actually have nothing to do with stars.
Perspective makes meteor showers appear to emanate from a single point in the sky known as the shower radiant. The typical meteor results from a particle- the size of a grain of sand- vaporising in Earth’s atmosphere when it enters at 134,000mph.
Something larger than a grape will produce a fireball, which is often accompanied by a persistent afterglow known as a meteor train. This is a column of ionised gas slowly fading from view as it loses energy.
Meteor, meteoroid or meteorite?
A meteor is a meteoroid – or a particle broken off an asteroid or comet orbiting the Sun – that burns up as it enters the Earth’s atmosphere, creating a “shooting star”.
Meteoroids that reach the Earth’s surface without disintegrating are called meteorites.
Meteors are mostly pieces of comet dust and ice no larger than a grain of rice. Meteorites are principally rocks broken off asteroids in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter and weigh as much as 60 tonnes.
They can be “stony”, made up of minerals rich in silicon and oxygen, “iron”, consisting mainly of iron and nickel, or “stony-iron”, a combination of the two.
Scientists think about 1,000 tons to more than 10,000 tons of material from meteors falls on Earth each day, but it’s mostly dust-like grains, according to Nasa, and they pose no threat to Earth.
There are only two recorded incidents of an injury caused by a meteorite. One of these instances saw a woman bruised by a meteorite, weighing eight pounds, after it fell through her roof in 1954.
Meteor shower dates for 2021
Quadrantid meteor shower
The Quadrantid was the first significant meteor shower this year. It was also one of the most unusual, as it is likely the Quadrantid meteor shower originated from an asteroid.
The meteor shower was first spotted by the Italian astronomer Antonio Brucalassi in 1825, and astronomers suspect the shower originates from the comet C/1490 Y1, which was first observed 500 years ago by Japanese, Chinese and Korean astronomers.
Peaking late at night on Jan 2 until dawn on Jan 3, it is known for its “bright fireball meteors”, which is, according to NASA, among the best annual meteor showers. In 2021, the Quadrantid peaked around 14:30 UTC.
However, this year, the shower was not quite as impressive as it was in previous years because of the moonlight. Though, at its peak, there were still up to 100 meteors flashing through the January sky.
The Quadrantids appear to radiate from the extinct constellation Quadrans Muralis, which is now part of the Boötes constellation and not far from the Big Dipper.
Because of the constellation’s position in the sky, the shower is often impossible to see in the Southern Hemisphere. However, there is a chance of spotting it up to 51 degrees south latitude.
The best spots to see the display are in countries with high northern latitudes, like Norway, Sweden, Canada and Finland.