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The first meteor shower of 2021 will illuminate the night sky on New Year's weekend

Meteor streaks through sky over St. Louis
Meteor streaks through sky over St. Louis 00:31

Between a once-in-a-lifetime comet and the epic meeting of Jupiter and Saturn for the great conjunction, 2020 was a big year for celestial phenomena. But 2021 is starting off strong with the peak of the Quadrantid meteor shower, which NASA calls one of the "best annual meteor showers," this weekend, from Saturday, January 2, into Sunday, January 3. 

What are the Quadrantids? 

According to NASA, the Quadrantids return each year between December 28 and January 12. First seen in 1825, they originate from the small asteroid 1003 EH1, which was discovered by the Lowell Observatory Near-Earth Object Search in March 2003. 

The meteors appear to radiate from a constellation called "Quadrans Muralis," which no longer exists. However, that constellation is not the actual source of the meteors. 

"An alternative name for the Quadrantids is the Bootids since the meteors appear to radiate from the modern constellation of Bootes," NASA says. "Even though the constellation may no longer be recognized, it was considered a constellation long enough to give the meteor shower its name."

The Quadrantids mark the final meteor shower of the season, ahead of several months with little celestial activity at the beginning of the new year. According to the American Meteor Society, it has the potential to be one of the strongest showers of the year, along with the Perseids and the Geminids.

During the brief window from Saturday night into Sunday morning, there is a chance to spot between 60 to 200 meteors per hour traveling at 25.5 miles per second. Quadrantids are known for bright fireball meteors, which are larger explosions of color and light that last longer than the average meteor streak. 

Despite the shower's potential, it will be brief: the window of maximum activity is just six hours. 

"The reason the peak is so short is due to the shower's thin stream of particles and the fact that the Earth crosses the stream at a perpendicular angle," NASA says.

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About 30 Quadrantid meteors can be counted in this skyscape composed of digital frames recorded in dark and moonless skies between 2:30 a.m. and local dawn. Daniel López / NASA APOD

How to watch the Quadrantid meteor shower 

The Northern Hemisphere is the best place to view the Quadrantids, but poor weather conditions in early January also make viewing more difficult. Even if the skies are clear of clouds, a nearly full waning gibbous moon continues to shine brightly throughout the weekend, making meteor-spotting tricky. 

Unlike many other popular meteor showers, which peak over several nights, timing your viewing of the Quadrantids is essential to spotting meteors. According to the International Meteor Organization, the peak is expected to occur at about 14:30 UTC on Sunday — meaning the best chance to view the shower in North America will be in the predawn hours of Sunday morning.

Like all meteor showers, you will want to move away from bright city lights for the best viewing conditions, lying flat on your back and giving your eyes about 30 minutes to adjust to the darkness. Dress for winter weather and be patient — the show will last until dawn. 

After the Quadrantids, another meteor shower won't occur for more than three months, when the Lyrids and the Eta Aquariids return in April.

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