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Astronomer's Guide to the Quadrantid Meteor Shower

The first meteor shower of 2013 peaks early Thursday.

Don't blink, you might miss the first meteor shower of the year.

The high-powered Quadrantid meteor shower should peak just before dawn Thursday with a maximum number of meteors per hour of about 80.

The meteor shower is expected to "last only a few hours," according to NASA.com.

The meteors are believed to be a piece of comet that broke apart centuries ago. The fragments will enter the Earth's atmosphere at 90,000 mph, burning up 50 miles above Earth's surface, according to NASA.

But Mother Nature and mankind are working against would-be Quadrantids viewers in the greater San Diego area.

If the lights of the city don't outshine the meteor shower, the glowing moon could. The meteor shower is peaking while the moon is in its bright gibbous phase, according to Space.com.

The shower could be best spotted ar Will Rogers Beach and Will Rogers State Park, or Temescal Canyon.

Viewing tips from NASA:

  • To view Quadrantids, go outside and allow your eyes 30-45 minutes to adjust to the dark.
  • Look straight up, allowing your eyes to take in as much of the sky as possible.
  • You will need cloudless, dark skies away from city lights to see the shower.

Like most meteor showers, Quadrantids is named for the constellation from which it appears to radiate. However, Quadrantids' constellation no longer exists. The constellation Quadrans Muralis, or Mural Quadrant, was created by the French astronomer Jerome Lalande in 1795 and was located between the constellations of Bootes the Herdsman and Draco the Dragon.

When the International Astronomical Union devised a list of 88 modern constellations in 1922, it did not include Quadrans Muralis. So the meteor shower retained its name, though the constellation was rendered obsolete.

These days, Quadrantids radiates from an area inside the constellation Boötes, near the Big Dipper.

If you can't get to a dark enough location in the city, you can watch a Ustream feed of the meteor shower on Jan. 2-4 on NASA.com. According to the National Weather Service we can expect clear skies tonight, though it may get a little cloudy heading into tomorrow.

From NASA:

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration website gives this description of the history of the Quadrantids in astronomy:

"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. 3 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 Boötes 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."

Adolphe Quetelet of the Brussels Observatory discovered the shower in the 1830s, and shortly afterward it was noted by several other astronomers in Europe and America.

Spacedex.com says the annual Quadrantids shower has one of the highest predicted hourly rates of all the major showers, and is comparable to the two of the most lively, the August Perseids and the December Geminids.

More from Spacedex.com:

While the plus side of this annual shower is its ability to produce fireballs, and its high hourly rates, the downside is its short peak. Quadrantids has an extremely narrow peak, occurring over just a few short hours. The Quadrantids are also well known for producing fireballs, meteors that are exceptionally bright. These meteors can also, at times, generate persistent trails (also identified as trains).

Those living in the northern hemisphere have an opportunity to experience a much better view of the Quadrantids, as the constellation Boötes never makes it above the horizon in the southern hemisphere. This is great for those living in North America, much of Europe, and the majority of Asia.

Unfortunately, those of you living in Australia and lower portions of South America will have a difficult time observing the Quadrantids. Observers in higher latitudes will have better gazing conditions, but nevertheless will need to be wary of cloud cover, as conditions are typically cloudy during this time of year.

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