Jan. 3, 2012 — -- If you're up early Wednesday morning and the weather is promising, bundle up and go outside. The Quadrantid meteor shower, the first of 2012, should be at its best between 3 a.m. and dawn, Eastern time. If you get lucky, you may get a silently satisfying sky show.
The Quadrantids are often the most intense of the year's regular meteor showers, but also one of the shortest. They happen when Earth passes through the narrow trail of debris left by an asteroid called 2003 EH1, so they only last a few hours. (Other showers, such as the Perseids in August, are caused by the more widespread debris from comets, so they may last several nights.) If it's cloudy where you are Wednesday morning, go back to bed and stay warm -- but if it's clear, astronomers say you could see 60-200 streaks across the sky per hour.
The gibbous moon will do you the favor of setting at about 3 a.m. local time, just around the time the meteor shower peaks in the Eastern time zone. From then until dawn, the sky should be very dark, best for watching meteors. If you get up early anyhow for work, you may want to get up a little earlier than usual.
The worst thing for skywatchers in much of the United States will be that the air is cold and crisp -- but the best thing will be that the air is cold and crisp. You'll need really warm clothing, but if the sky is clear, it's very clear.
"So make it an adventure!" wrote Alan MacRobert of Sky & Telescope magazine. "Plan a proper expedition. You want to be snug in many layers from head to feet with no pinches or thin spots. An electric hot pad buttoned inside your coat will help, with a long extension cord back to the house."
What you're seeing are tiny particles, some no larger than grains of sand, plunging into the atmosphere at speeds of up to 90,000 mph. They typically burn up -- a quick and spectacular death -- about 50 miles overhead.
Be alert; most meteors streak by in a second or less, sometimes in clusters. The best way to see them is to find a nice, dark place with no street lights and as few trees as possible, and look up. You may be happiest in a lawn chair or a sleeping bag. The streaks will appear to radiate from a point in the northeast, near the handle of the Big Dipper, but they could appear anywhere in the sky.
Because of the direction from which they come, the Quadrantids are a northern-hemisphere phenomenon. And because of the timing -- the shower peaking as the moon sets -- the best seeing should be in the eastern U.S.
It's best if you're far from cities, have clear skies, and let your eyes get used to the dark. (Go to our weather page for conditions near you.) Astronomers will tell you that meteor showers are best if you regard them as something to be savored, rather than awed by.
It will be cold -- the mid-teens from New England to Georgia -- so be prepared. But if you're lucky, you'll be warmed by what you get to see.