The beginning of a new year brings a celestial spectacle this weekend that skywatchers should not miss. Over the next few days Earth will be passing through a stream of cosmic debris left in the wake of a near-Earth asteroid, 2003 EH1. Intersecting this trail of rocky particles means that some of these little guys will be pulled down into our atmosphere by Earth's gravity, causing a nice meteor shower called the Quadrantids. The Quadrantid meteors peak in activity each year on Jan. 3.
Meteor showers are easy to observe, as they are best viewed with the naked eye alone, simply gazing straight up at the zenith, the highest point in the sky. That allows many streaks of light, "shooting stars," as some call them, to be seen from all angles in your peripheral vision. And at peak activity this year, the Quadrantids could produce as many as 120 meteors per hour. Moreover, the Moon will be out of the sky during the predawn hours, when the shower will be best. The most meteors appear after midnight, when Earth rotates "head-on" into the stream of debris. And the Moon can act as a giant searchlight in the sky, blotting out faint meteors. But moonlight will not be a hindrance this year.
The meteors will appear to come from a point in the sky called the radiant, in the constellation Boötes. Here is a map showing the apparent origin of the Quadrantids as they streak into our atmosphere:
Credit: Astronomy: Roen Kelly
Although the meteor shower peaks on Jan. 3, Quadrantid meteors will be visible for several days before and after the peak. So if you're fortunate enough to have clear skies this weekend, bundle up, head outside, and check out a nice meteor shower!
You can find more information about meteor showers and how to observe them at Astronomy.com.