While the Quadrantids are a little-known meteor shower, 2017 will be a great year to catch them during their Jan. 3-4 overnight peak. The nearly new moon's dim light will provide favorable viewing conditions for the meteor shower, and average rates of 120 meteors per hour are expected.
That said, skywatchers will see the best results far west in North America, meteor experts said. The meteor shower's peak is typically only 6 hours long, and it's expected to hit at about 9 a.m. Eastern Time (1400 UTC). This means that if you are far on the West Coast, the best time to catch the meteors will likely be just before dawn (6 a.m. Pacific Time).
"That prediction is not set in stone," Robert Lunsford, a long-time meteor observer with the American Meteor Society, told Space.com. "We haven't got this one nailed down yet. It acts the way it wants to."
When to see them
The Quadrantid meteor shower is not as well-known as other meteor showers like the Geminids or Orionids, because the meteors are fainter and easier to miss. However, they can produce fireballs with giant, glowing tails highlighting the meteors' paths across the sky.
The moon will be in observers' favor, Lunsford said. "It's in the evening sky, and it will be gone by the time the meteor shower radiant swings high in the sky in the morning."
To find the radiant, you will need to look for the constellation Bootes. The easiest way to find it is to look north for the Big Dipper. Then, follow the "arc" of the Big Dipper's handle across the sky to the red giant star Arcturus, which anchors the bottom of Bootes.
If you happen to catch the shower at an off-peak moment, rates of about 25 meteors per hour are still expected. Lunsford recommended keeping Bootes in your field of view, but looking slightly away so that you catch the meteors with the longer tails.
Where do they come from?
The Quadrantids are thought to be associated with asteroid 2003 EH1, which is likely an extinct comet, NASA meteor expert Bill Cooke told Space.com. "It was either a piece of a comet or a comet itself, and then it became extinct," which means that all the ice and other volatiles on the comet have evaporated, he said.
The asteroid has a perihelion (closest approach to the sun) just inside the Earth's orbit, which is pretty far away in celestial terms. Scientists also think that the asteroid may have some connection to the Comet 96P/Machholtz, a comet that orbits the sun once every six years. First observations of the Quadrantids shower appear to be in Europe in the 1820s and 1830s. [How Meteor Showers Work (Infographic)]
How to get the best view
Binoculars and telescopes are not useful for meteor showers; your eyes are enough to see the shooting stars streaking overhead. Find a dark sky and give your eyes about 20-30 minutes to adjust. Dress warmly and face a little away from the radiant in Bootes to catch the longer-streaking meteors.