In 2011, shooting star gazing was frequently stymied by blinding moonlight. But tonight, NASA says, the Quadrantids meteor shower will peak after the moon sets around 3 a.m., setting the stage for a “brief, beautiful show”.
While cautioning the Quadrantids are notoriously unpredictable, Space.com says: “This first meteor shower of the year may end up being one of the best of 2012.
Between 60 and 200 meteors per hour will streak through the night sky, with an average of about 100 NASA says.
For the Quadrantids, unlike the longer lasting Geminid and Perseid showers, if you snooze, you lose. Viewing will only be possible between about 2:30 and 5 a.m. with an expected peak around 3 or 4 a.m.
You’ll want to look to the northern sky to see the meteors, between the constellation Bootes and the handle of the Big Dipper.
Across much of the Midwest and eastern third of the U.S., sky conditions should be sufficiently clear to allow viewing. Partial cloud cover may partially obscure the view in the northern mid-Atlantic and Northeast. Where skies are clear, sky watchers will need to brave frigid overnight lows in the single digits and teens in many locations.
Here’s more background on the Quadrantids from NASA:
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. 4 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!
The Quadrantids derive their name from the constellation of Quadrans Muralis (mural quadrant), which was created by the French astronomer Jerome Lalande in 1795. Located between the constellations of Bootes and Draco, Quadrans represents an early astronomical instrument used to observe and plot stars. Even though the constellation is no longer recognized by astronomers, it was around long enough to give the meteor shower -- first seen in 1825 -- its name.
Given the location of the radiant -- northern tip of Bootes the Herdsman -- only northern hemisphere observers will be able to see Quadrantids.