False-color image of a rare early Quadrantid, captured by a NASA meteor camera in 2010.(Photo: Bill Cooke, NASA)
(USA Today) -- For astronomy buffs, the new year begins with the 'blink and you'll miss them" Quadrantid meteor shower.
The Quads, as they are known, arrive between midnight and dawn on Jan. 3. The showers have a short peak of just eight hours. Unfortunately much of the nation will be in daylight when they hit, so this year only the West will have much of a view.
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The best viewing will be in Asia, so most of America will have to relive the event in photos.
Although visibility will not be great this year, the Quads typically appear as shooting starts in a crisp, clear winter sky.
The Quads were first observed in Italy in 1825. They are named after an obsolete constellation, Quadrans Muralis, created by a French astronomer in 1795.
Peak time occurs from 8 to 9 a.m. Eastern, 5 a.m. Pacific on Thursday. This makes the predawn hours Thursday the best time to look for Quads in North America, said Bill Cooke, head of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.
The number of meteors per hour for the Quadrantids varies from 60 to 200 per hour, with an average around 120. Most Quads are relatively faint, so the presence this year of light from a waning gibbous Moon will wash out many of these shooting stars, said Alan MacRobert, senior editor at Sky & Telescope magazine.
With the West the best for viewing the Quadrantids, we'll focus on the weather for that part of the country: Most of the Western third of the US will have good skywatching weather tonight, with clear to mostly clear skies forecast, according to AccuWeather meteorologist Mike Pigott.
AccuWeather reports that the best states for viewing the meteor shower will be in southern California, Arizona, New Mexico and southern sections of Nevada and Utah.
The farther north and east you are, however, the viewing will be less stellar. Some clouds are forecast to cover the sky along the Pacific Northwest coast and over much of Texas, according to an online cloud forecast map from the Weather Channel.
Unfortunately, in Hawaii, where the meteors will also be visible, cloudy and showery weather is expected overnight. In Honolulu, the National Weather Service is forecasting cloudy skies tonight and Thursday, with scattered showers likely.
The Quad's peak is really the only time to watch them because the rate of meteors striking the earth's atmosphere quickly diminishes. That's different from most other big showers such as the Geminids and Perseids, which have good rates for a couple of days centered on their respective peaks.
Cold weather in the northern hemisphere and the proximity to the holidays make this the poorest observed major meteor shower, Cooke said.
It wasn't recognized as an "official" constellation by the International Astronomical Union (the same group that "demoted" Pluto) in 1922, so Quadrantid meteors appear to radiate from a point in Bootes the Herdsman, he said. The meteor shower retains the constellation name, even though it no longer officially exists.
The Quadrantids are unusual because they come from an asteroid, not a comet, as do most meteor showers.
It's thought that the asteroid, named 2003 EH1, is the extinct remains of a comet observed in Asia back in the year 1490, Cooke said. Asteroids are small, rocky bodies while comets are made up of ice and dust around a rocky core.