A "shooting star" streaks the sky over ruins in Damghan—an ancient Iranian city 224 miles (360 kilometers) northeast of Tehran—early Tuesday during the peak of the 2011 Quadrantid meteor shower. This year the Quadrantids peak featured rates of more than a hundred meteors an hour.
The peak coincided with the dark new moon in Tuesday's predawn hours, creating ideal viewing conditions—a moonless sky made many of the fainter meteors visible. The meteor shower's peak was best viewed from Europe and Central Asia, although North American sky-watchers were able to catch the trailing end of the show.
In general, the Quadrantids are considered one of the most reliable and productive of the annual meteor displays, but they're not as well known, Conrad Jung, staff astronomer at the Chabot Space & Science Centre in Oakland, California, told National Geographic News.
"While it doesn't grab much headlines, being set in the tail end of the winter holidays, the Quadrantids are about as intense as the [August] Perseids, and [they] promise to put on a pretty light show for those sky-watchers willing to brave the chilly weather to look for them."
A Quadrantid meteor seems to zip near the horizon over Alberta, Canada, in the early hours of January 2—a day before the peak of the annual meteor shower.
Most meteor showers happen when Earth slams into large clouds of particles left behind by passing comets. These particles vaporize when they hit the atmosphere, creating the brilliant streaks.
Almost all of the annual meteor showers can be linked to known comets. But the parent object of the Quadrantids remains a mystery. One theory is that their source is a comet that broke apart during a collision 500 years ago and ceased to be active. (See asteroid and comet pictures.)
A picture taken with a fisheye lens turns the night sky over Alberta, Canada, into a gemstone streaked with light from a Quadrantid meteor on the evening of January 3.
Like other meteor showers, the Quadrantids get their name from the constellation from which the meteors appear to radiate. But this shower's namesake pattern of stars isn't found in any map of the heavens today.
Dubbed Quadrans Muralis in the 19th century, the constellation was abandoned in 1922 due to overcrowding in star charts. The stars in Quadrans Muralis were absorbed by the neighboring constellation Boötes, the Herdsman. (Explore a solar system interactive.)
Branches of a Joshua tree are silhouetted against a night sky sprinkled with Quadrantids in a picture taken in the early hours of January 4 from California's Joshua Tree National Park.
In addition to being best visible from chilly northern latitudes in the dead of winter, the Quadrantids are relatively unpopular due to the unusual brevity of their peak, Chabot Space & Science Centre's Jung said.
While the Quadrantids' peak hourly rates are estimated to range from 60 to 130 meteors, the most intense part of the shower lasts for just two to four hours.
Still, "what better way to kick off the year than to have nature provide a fireworks show in the form of a meteor shower," Jung said.
The green curtain of an aurora creates a veil over a Quadrantid meteor as seen from northeastern Norway on January 3.
Meteor lovers have a while to wait until the next sky show of 2011: The Lyrid meteor shower won't grace the heavens until mid-April, and the glare from a bright, almost full moon at peak will block most of the fainter Lyrids from view.