Pity the poor Quadrantid meteor shower. Even though it puts on such a spectacular show for us, its timing – in the midst of the bitterest part of winter, at a time when most people are still nursing New Year’s hangovers – ensures that it will always fall behind summertime showers like the Perseids in popularity.
But for those who brave the cold, the Quadrantids hold the promise of a dazzling display. Astronomers predict that the shower will peak between Jan. 3 and Jan. 4 this year. The International Meteor Organization thinks the peak will come at about 19:30 Universal Time on Jan. 3 – about 2:30 in the afternoon for those on the U.S. East Coast, meaning that people across the Atlantic will likely have a better view. But peak predictions are not always 100 percent accurate, so it may still be possible to catch some meteors on Friday night in the U.S. And seeing the shower will be made easier thanks to the fact that that night’s moon will be just a slim crescent that sets early in the evening.
“Meteor showers are a crapshoot; you might see lots, or just a few,” writes Phil Plait of Slate. “However, unlike at a casino, pretty much no matter what happens, you win in the end: You spend a night out under the stars, watching the sky.”
If you can get to an area with open sky, away from the lights of the city, you may see some of the characteristic Quadrantid fireballs after sunset on Jan. 3. While most meteor showers peak over two days, the window of opportunity is much shorter for the Quadrantids, just a few hours.
“The reason the peak is so short is due to the shower's thin stream of particles and the fact that the Earth crosses the stream at a perpendicular angle,” NASA explains.
Most meteor showers are bits of comets that have broken off and been left behind in the comet’s path. As the Earth orbits the sun, it occasionally crosses through these streams of debris, and the meteors enter the atmosphere and burn up, creating bright streaks as they fall toward Earth (if they end up falling to the ground, they can be properly called meteorites). The meteors will generally appear to originate from one spot among the stars; this imaginary origin point, or radiant, will usually give the shower its name (Perseids appear to come from the constellation Perseus, Geminids from Gemini, and so forth).
The Quadrantids’ parent body is assumed to be an asteroid called 2003 EH1, an asteroid that might be the rocky ghost of a comet that’s shed all of its ice. The name of the shower comes from an obsolete constellation called Quadrans Muralis, between Draco and Bootes (and near to the handle of the Big Dipper). French astronomer Jerome Lalande named the grouping of stars after a device used to measure angles, but the constellation was left off an official list compiled by the International Astronomical Union (the same dastardly group that stripped Pluto of its planetary title) in 1922.
The Quadrantids kick off a year that might see an entirely new meteor shower. In May 2014, astronomers think that Earth might see its first crop of shooting stars as it passes through the trail of Comet 209P/LINEAR, a body discovered in 2004 that comes near the sun about once every five years. Calculations predict that any such meteor storm would appear to radiate from the constellation Camelopardalis, named for the archaic Roman term for a giraffe.