If your New Year's resolution is to catch more sky shows, you're in luck: The 2011 Quadranitds—which peak tonight—are slated to be one of the best meteor showers of the year.
During the peak, around 1 a.m. UT on Tuesday, upward of a hundred shooting stars an hour may be visible in dark, rural areas, astronomers estimate.
The Quadrantids will be best viewed in Europe and Central Asia. North American observers will see the trailing end of the peak in the wee hours of Tuesday morning.
"What better way to kick off the year than to have nature provide a fireworks show in the form of a meteor shower," said Conrad Jung, staff astronomer at the Chabot Space & Science Centre in Oakland, California.
The Quadrantids are considered one of the most reliable and productive of the annual meteor displays, Jung said, but they're not as well known for two reasons: their brevity and their awkward timing in the calendar year.
While the Quadrantids' hourly rates are estimated to range anywhere from 60 to 130 meteors, the shower lasts for a period of just two to four hours—so timing your observations is essential, Jung said.
"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 Perseids, and promise to put on a pretty light show for those skywatchers willing to brave the chilly weather to look for them."
(Also see "Meteor Shower Peaks Tonight—How to See Perseids" [August 2010].)
Stellar Year for Quadrantids?
The 2011 Quadrantids promise to be better than average, astronomers say. That's because the meteor shower's peak time will coincide with the new moon in Tuesday's predawn hours.
This should make for ideal conditions to see many of the fainter meteors, which would otherwise be lost in the moon's glare.
The best way to view the show is to dress warmly, lie back in a reclining chair, and find a dark spot with a good northeastern horizon, said Jim Todd, planetarium manager at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. (See pictures of our vanishing night in National Geographic magazine.)
The shooting stars will appear to come from a region high in the late-night northeastern sky just off the Big Dipper's handle.
But Todd stressed that observers should not concentrate on just the source of the shooting stars alone: The show will encompass the entire night sky.
"While you can trace the individual meteors back toward the Big Dipper area, you will actually see meteors streaking across all parts of the sky, so keep your eyes open," Todd said.
Quadrantids Named For "Missing" Constellation
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 Bootes, the Herdsman. (Explore a solar system interactive.)
As for the Quadrantids keeping their name, Todd said it's likely that astronomers at the time decided to maintain it to avoid any confusion with the already established Bootid meteor shower.
Unusual Asteroid Origin for Quadrantids?
Almost as weird as the shower's name is its probable origin. Most meteor showers occur when Earth slams into large debris clouds of particles left behind by comets, but the parent object for the Quadrantids remains a mystery.
Recent research suggests that the source material for the Quadrantids may be a piece of a comet that broke apart during a collision 500 years ago and ceased to be active. (See asteroid and comet pictures.)
The strongest evidence for this theory is calulations showing such a collision would have produced a debris stream that would be nearly perpendicular to Earth's orbit, said Chabot Space & Science Centre's Jung.
"The resulting intersection between our orbits would explain why the peak of the shower lasts for such a short period of time," Jung said.
"During the shower, our planet is punching its way quickly through this debris cloud that produces the brief show we end up seeing in the skies above."