Late tonight, and I mean late: the Quadrantids meteor shower will peak with perhaps 50-100 or so meteors streaking through the sky each hour. The best viewing time will be between about 3 a.m. and dawn Thursday.
But a repeat performance of the stunning Geminid shower last month is unlikely. A waning gibbous moon will emit enough light to wash out a significant fraction of the shooting stars.
Space.com likens the Quandratids viewing experience to opening up a box of chocolates, quoting to the oft-repeated line from the film Forrest Gump: “[Y]ou never know what you’re going to get!”
The narrow viewing window, the late night appearance, moonlight, and weather can all prove impedidents to successful shower sightings.
“If you miss the peak – which is easy to do – this otherwise tepid shower is sure to disappoint,” writes Earth Sky.
NASA provides this advice for dedicated night sky watchers:
To view Quadrantids, go outside and allow your eyes 30-45 minutes to adjust to the dark. Look straight up, allowing your eyes to take in as much of the sky as possible. You will need cloudless, dark skies away from city lights to see the shower. The maximum rate will be about 120/hour. However, light from the waning gibbous moon will wash out fainter meteors, so don’t expect to see this many. The peak rate of the Quadrantids has varied between 60-200, so its peak is not as consistent as other showers.
In the Washington, D.C. area, sky conditions should allow for viewing in the northern suburbs but clouds could be an issue in town and especially to the south. Temperatures will be cold, dropping into the 20s.
If you don’t care to brave the elements or risk an underwhelming experience, NASA will provide a live webcast from Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsvlle, Ala. on the nights of January 2-4.
Where do the Quandratids come from? NASA explains:
Like the Geminids, the Quadrantids originate from an asteroid, called 2003 EH1. Dynamical studies suggest that this body could very well be a piece of a comet which broke apart several centuries ago, and that the meteors you will see before dawn on Jan. 3 are the small debris from this fragmentation. After hundreds of years orbiting the sun, they will enter our atmosphere at 90,000 mph, burning up 50 miles above Earth’s surface -- a fiery end to a long journey!