First meteor shower of 2020 set to light up night skies – here’s how to watch

The Quadrantid meteor shower is expected to be visible until dawn Credit: Tim Ireland/PA

Skygazers are set for some celestial fireworks as the first meteor shower of 2020 looks to light up the night skies on Friday night.

The Quadrantid meteor shower is expected to peak this evening and, weather permitting, will be visible until the early morning of January 4.

The Met Office has predicted cloud for much of the country, blocking views of the shower - but forecasts show there could be some clear skies above dark areas of the south of the United Kingdom.

What causes a meteor shower and how long will it last?

Thousands of meteors will shoot through the skies above Britain on Friday night. Credit: AP

Meteor showers, or shooting stars, are caused when pieces of debris, known as meteorites, enter the planet’s atmosphere at speeds of around 43 miles per second, burning up and causing streaks of light.

Named after the now-defunct constellation of Quadrans Muralis, the Quadrantid meteor shower appears to radiate from near the constellation of Bootes beside the Big Dipper.

Unlike other meteor showers that tend to stay at their peak for about two days, the Quadrantid shower has a short peak period that lasts only a few hours.

Credit: PA Graphics

What are the best conditions to see the meteors and where in the UK will have the best view?

The shower is expected to last for a few hours overnight, with the best views afforded to those in dark locations with clear skies. Looking to the north east will give would-be astronomers the best changes of catching a glimpse.

The Met Office has predicted much of the country will be covered in a blanket of cloud, but parts will be spared.

Stargazers in the south of England have the best chances of seeing shooting stars, with predictions for a mostly clear night around Surrey, Sussex and Hampshire.

Astronomers recommend heading to areas with dark skies to have unabated views.

A good location to see the astronomical event could be the South Downs, which boasts some of the best vistas unaffected by light pollution.

Large swathes of the area between London and the south coast enjoy clear skies; including around Winchester, Lewes and Birling Gap.

A map displaying the darkest skies in the South Downs, which is likely to have clear skies this evening. Credit: South Downs National Park

How many meteors can stargazers expect to see?

Dhara Patel, an astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich, told the PA news agency: "With up to 120 meteors per hour, the Quadrantids are considered one of the best annual meteor showers, however you’re likely to see far fewer meteors under imperfect viewing conditions.

"The peak of the shower only lasts a few hours compared to many other meteor showers which can stay at their peak for a couple of days, so there’s a limited opportunity to catch the peak."

Unlike most meteor showers which originate from comets, it is believed the Quadrantids originate from an asteroid called 2003 EH1, which takes around five-and-a-half years to orbit the Sun.

A meteor shoots through the a clear sky during an astronomical event. Credit: AP

While the meteors can be spotted all over the sky, Ms Patel advises facing towards the north-east, in the direction of the radiant, to catch as many of these shooting stars as possible.

She told PA: "Head out after midnight as the Moon sets below the western horizon so there’s less interference from moonlight.

"To give yourself the best chance of spotting the meteors, head out to an open and dark area, allowing your eyes time to become sensitive in the darkness by avoiding any bright sources of light like a mobile phone.

"Once you’re set up, be patient and enjoy the spectacle – it’ll be visible until dawn."