Kick off the New Year with the annual Quadrantid meteor shower, which will peak tonight into tomorrow morning.
During the peak period between 3 a.m. and dawn local time, as many as a hundred shooting stars per hour will be visible from dark locations in the Northern Hemisphere. (Read about the 2011 Quadrantids.)
While the glare of the waning moon will mute the display somewhat, "don't let that stop you from stepping outside, as intense activity is limited to only six hours," said Jim Todd, planetarium manager at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.
There's also no need for binoculars or telescopes to catch this sky show, according to Geza Gyuk, astronomer with the Adler Planetarium in Chicago.
Early Thursday morning, "find a site with a clear northern horizon where the shower appears to radiate out from—just off the handle of the Big Dipper—and bundle up and bring a friend," said Gyuk.
"A meteor shared is a meteor squared. One gets so much more pleasure when one can compare notes, gripes, and wonder!" he added.
Quadrantids Named for "Missing" Constellation
During a meteor shower Earth passes through a cloud of sand-grain-size particles left behind by a passing comet. The particles get ionized in the upper atmosphere in a bright flash of light—some of which are brighter than others.
Tiny fragments from the comet slam into the Earth's atmosphere at 90,000 miles per hour (1.4 million kilometers per hour) and burn up 50 miles (80 kilometers) above Earth, "creating the spectacular display we know as a meteor shower," Todd explained.
Like other meteor showers, the Quadrantids (pronounced Kwa-drun-tids) get their name from the constellation from which the meteors appear to radiate.
Dubbed Quadrans Muralis in the 19th century, this shower's namesake pattern of stars isn't found in any map of the heavens today.
Overcrowded star charts forced the removal of the constellation in 1922.
Astronomers decided to have Quadrans Muralis absorbed by the neighboring constellation Boötes, the Herdsman.
As for the Quadrantids keeping their name, it's likely that astronomers at the time decided to maintain it to avoid any confusion with the already established Bootid meteor shower.
Quadrantids Overlooked But Impressive
Historically the Quadrantid meteor shower is overlooked simply because of its brevity and timing—right in the middle of the most frigid winter nights in the Northern Hemisphere, where they are best seen.
But the Quadrantids are worth a look.
For one, they're prolific: "Nearly as many Quadrantid meteors will fly as can be seen during the larger August Perseid and December Geminid meteor showers," said the Oregon museum's Todd.
(Related pictures: "'Beautiful' Geminid Meteor Showers Grace Skies.")
The Quadrantids are also "well known for producing fireballs—exceptionally bright meteors which can also at times generate persistent trails," Todd said.
What's more, the meteor shower's parent object holds some mystery—it appears to be a recently discovered asteroid dubbed 2003 EH1.
And observational evidence is mounting that this object is most likely an extinct comet nucleus, said Todd, which appears to be the remnant of a larger object that broke apart about 500 years ago.
This unusual cosmic heritage makes sense, as the Quadrantids don't appear in older records.
"Other meteor showers, such as the Perseids and perhaps Leonids, seem to be fairly old, with historical documentation suggesting that they have been observed for thousands of years," said Gyuk.
"For the Quadrantids, there is good evidence to suggest that the shower didn't really start until about 500 years ago—making this also consistent with its very narrow peak in activity."