Promising Quadrantid Meteor Shower to Peak Next Week
This sky map shows where to look in the northeastern sky to spot the annual Quadrantid meteor shower, which peaks overnight on Jan. 3 and Jan. 4, 2011. It will appear between and below the Big Dipper and Little Dipper constellations.
Credit: NASA/JPL

The year 2011 will begin with an eye-catching sky show for well-placed observers when the annual Quadrantid meteor shower hits its peak next week. The new year promises to be a great one to see the Quadrantids since the moon, which can sometimes outshine the display, will be completely out of the picture.

The Quadrantid meteor shower is due to reach maximum late Monday (Jan. 3) or early Tuesday (Jan. 4). The moon will be in its "new" phase ? when it?s dark ? and poses no concern of interfering with the meteor display.

This year, the most favorably placed skywatchers are expected to be in Europe and Central Asia. If predictions of the shower?s peak come true, viewers there may spot 50 or 100 meteors per hour.

This Quadrantid meteor shower sky map shows where to look in the northeastern sky to spot the shooting star display. It will appear between and below the familiar constellations of the Big Dipper and Little Dipper.

Meteor shower rings in 2011

In the United States, the predicted peak would come at 8 p.m. EST on Jan. 3 (0100 GMT Jan. 4). With the meteors appearing to emanate from low on the horizon, viewers in the northern U.S. may see one dozen or two dozen Quadrantids per hour.

 Very few meteors are likely to be seen in the southern United States, since they would be streaking from below the horizon during the early hours of darkness. 

Quadrantid meteors are of medium speed: slower than the Leonids and Perseids, yet faster than the Geminids. They usually appear bluish, accompanied by fine, long spreading silver trains. [Great Leonid meteor shower photos]

The peak of the "Quads" lasts only a few hours. But under ideal, dark-sky conditions, this can be one of the year?s best meteor displays. (Any light pollution would cut down the numbers greatly.)

Give your eyes at least 15 to 20 minutes to adapt to the dark before starting a serious meteor count.  No matter what time the peak, you?d have to get up before dawn to see the best display.

This is because the shower's radiant ? from where the meteors appear to fan out or emanate ? is in Quadrans Muralis, the Mural Quadrant, the obsolete constellation halfway between the head of Draco and the end of the Big Dipper's handle.

An obsolete constellation is one that is no longer officially recognized. That part of the sky is down low on the northern horizon till about midnight, rising slowly higher in the northeast toward dawn.

When and where to look

According to British meteor astronomer Alastair McBeath, the peak of the 2011 Quadrantids might occur roughly between 4 p.m. EST (2100 GMT) on Jan. 3 and 1 a.m. EST (0600 GMT) on Jan. 4.  Most almanacs are highlighting 8 p.m. EST Jan. 3 (0100 GMT Jan. 4) as the "most likely" time, because that is about when Earth is expected to pass through the densest part of this meteor stream, based on observations dating back to 1992.

But McBeath points out that other investigations have found that the Quadrantid rates can vary from year to year, so that its peak timing may not be consistent.

If the 0100 prediction is correct, then the best chances of seeing the peak of the 2011 Quadrantids would be for Europe east to central Asia, where the radiant will be rising in the northeast during the morning hours of Jan. 4.

As a bonus, a partial solar eclipse will also be visible at, or soon after sunrise. 

For those living in North America, try looking for the Quadrantid meteors as soon as the sky gets dark on the evening of Monday, Jan. 3.  The radiant will be low in the northwest during the early evening. But even if you have excellent weather,  the radiant will be very near the horizon.

 If, however, the peak comes several hours later (as McBeath suggests), viewers in eastern Canada and the northeastern United States also might try looking toward the northeast part of the sky during the predawn hours of Jan. 4.

Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York's Hayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy for The New York Times and other publications, and he is also an on-camera meteorologist for News 12 Westchester, New York.