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Quadrantid meteor shower peaks in early January

This celestial spectacle will produce as many as 120 meteors per hour at the beginning of 2014.

An observer in Ohio catches a Quadrantid meteor in 2012.

This 2012 Quadrantid meteor was easily visible above the imager’s home despite the bright gibbous Moon and the city lights of Dayton, Ohio.

John Chumack

Here’s something to look forward to this new year: The Quadrantid meteor shower will be turning on some holiday lights from December 28 to January 12. This year’s meteors are fortunate enough to streak across a moonless predawn sky.

The Moon will set in the early evening, leaving the sky as dark as your site is. The best time to observe the Quadrantids is during the early morning hours of January 3, when they peak. The climax of their sky-show will produce between 60 and 120 meteors per hour, a rate comparable to the more famed Perseid and Geminid showers.

Why, then, are the Quadrantids more obscure? “This particular meteor shower has a narrow peak,” says Senior Editor Michael Bakich. “Its high point only lasts a few hours, making it harder to catch. Plus, it occurs in the dead of winter for northern observers.”

2014's finest meteor shower will occur on January 3

The January 3 peak of the Quadrantid meteor shower promises to be the best one of 2014.

Astronomy: Roen Kelly

The Quadrantids are named after an obsolete constellation. In 1928, the International Astronomical Union left poor Quadrans Muralis off the list of official stellar groupings. The Quadrantid meteor shower, however, already had its moniker. The name stuck, although the shower is sometimes called the Boötids, after Boötes, the modern constellation from which the meteors appear to emanate.

Meteors appear because small particles of dust collide with Earth’s atmosphere. The friction between these motes and the atmosphere vaporizes the dust, leaving only a trail of light in the sky. Meteor showers usually occur when Earth passes through a comet’s stream of debris — discarded dust that traces a comet’s orbit.

Senior Editor Michael Bakich explains how best to view an meteor shower.

In this video, Senior Editor Michael E. Bakich gives tips on spending a comfortable and fruitful night while meteor-watching. Click on the image to go to the video.

The Quadrantids, however, occur when Earth passes through the debris tail of a near-Earth asteroid called 2003 EH1. It orbits the Sun once every 5.5 years and was discovered just 10 years ago. To see the meteors caused by this space rock, look one-third of the way across the sky from the radiant (the spot on which the meteor paths appear to be centered) — in this case, in Boötes.

So put on your thermal base layer and head outside to celebrate the new year with the unusual and underrated Quadrantid meteor shower.

Fast facts:

  • The debris stream that causes the Quadrantids contains 23 trillion pounds (10 trillion kilograms) of material.
  • Interactions with Jupiter perturb the stream’s orbit, changing its tilt by as much as 58° in the past few thousand years.
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