Wishing upon a star? Sky-watchers can make plenty of New Year's wishes as the Quadrantid meteor shower peaks early on the morning of January 3.
While it may be downright frosty outside, the sky show with the strange name is worth bundling up for, as it's considered one of the best of the year for Northern Hemisphere observers. (See also: "Best Pictures of Perseids Meteor Shower.")
Astronomers say the shower will average one or two shooting stars nearly every minute, when viewed from the dark countryside. Making it worth braving the cold, the shower's timing this year offers excellent sky-watching conditions.
"The Quadrantids should be a better show this year than on some others because it happens during the dark of the moon, so there's no moonlight to contend with seeing fainter meteors," said astronomer Ben Burress of the Chabot Space & Science Center in Oakland, California.
Like all other meteor showers, the Quadrantids (pronounced kwa-drun-tids) owes its name to the constellation that appears to release all of its meteors.
However, you won't come across the constellation on any modern star chart. In 1922, overcrowded constellation maps necessitated the removal of the 19th-century stellar figure Quadrans Muralis. Astronomers decided to assign its stars to the neighboring constellation Bootes, the Herdsman.
"There is another meteor shower that radiates from Bootes, called the Bootids, which may be why the Quadrantids retained the name of the obsolete radiant point constellation," said Burress.
While most meteor showers occur when Earth slams into large debris clouds of particles left behind by disintegrating comets as they round the Sun, the parent object for the Quadrantids remains a bit of a mystery. A 2003 discovery suggests that the Quadrantids' space dust most likely derives from an extinct comet that we now know as asteroid 2003 EH1.
Here are a few tips to get the most out of the holiday fireworks show.
When is the best time to look up?
Sky-watchers should start seeing a noticeable uptick in the number of meteors on the night of Thursday, January 2, with best viewing between midnight and dawn on the morning of Friday, Jan 3.
Typically, a local 2 a.m. to 3 a.m. time frame is best for most meteor showers, like the better known Perseids and Geminids. But the Quadrantids are a bit trickier to catch, said Burress.
"Normally, a shower's peak activity is spread out over many hours, or even the better part of a day, and you can even see some activity up to a week before or after the peak," said Burress.
"The Quadrantids begin and end in a short period, so finding the time when you can see them can be a fickle thing."
Is any particular place on Earth more favored than others to watch the show?
The Northern Hemisphere as a whole has the best view of the Quadrantids, since each shooting star appears to stream out from the northern sky near the North Star.
However, since the predicted peak time this year is around 9:30 a.m. GMT (2:30 p.m. EST) on January 3, observers on the Asian continent may be best placed to see the absolute maximum rates of meteor fall.
In North America, rates may be a more modest 20 to 30 meteors per hour, when seen from dark sites.
Where in the sky will the shooting stars appear?
Individual meteors will radiate outward from the northern constellation Bootes—just off the handle of the Big Dipper, which will be visible high in the northeastern sky.
While facing the radiant is best, it's important to remember that individual meteors may be seen streaking across any part of the overhead sky.
What is the best way to enjoy the meteor show?
With chilly temperatures this time of the year, Burress recommends being well-prepared to stay warm before heading outside.
"Make sure to find a safe, dark place away from city lights [that] is clear of trees and buildings, and most of all stay warm and be patient," he said.