The first meteor shower of the year is underway and peaking at the moment. The Quadrantids is one of the most spectacular but brief showers of the year, at its peak producing 60-120 meteors per hour.
Meteors, popularly known as 'shooting stars', appear as fleeting streaks of light and most are caused by particles no bigger than grains of sand. These collide with the Earth's atmosphere at up to 70 km per second (157,000 mph) and burn up. With patience, meteors can be seen on any night of the year.
All the meteors in the Quatrandid shower appear to come from the same point in the sky, or radiant, situated near the familiar grouping of the Plough. The shower is named for the former constellation Quadrans Muralis, the stars of which once lay in that direction. The Quadrantids are less well-known than many other meteor showers, probably because only the hardiest observers brave the cold January nights.
In contrast with many meteor showers, the Quadrantids are not obviously connected to a particular modern-day comet but some astronomers believe them to originate from a large cometary body that broke up thousands of years ago.
In 2003, SETI institute astronomer Peter Jenniskens suggested that the Quadrantids are tied to the near-Earth asteroid 2003EH1 (see Dr Jenniskens' paper here). Dr Jenniskens believes this object is actually an extinct comet, possibly once seen by the Chinese 500 years ago in 1490. The comet may have subsequently broken up, releasing all its volatile material in a single event. When the Earth passes through the dust cloud each January we see the meteor shower.
Unlike many astronomical objects, observers need no special equipment to view meteors. The sensitivity and wide field of view of the human eye are perfect for watching the Quadrantids and all observers need to do is watch the sky for a few minutes.
As ever, it pays to leave the lights of the city behind and rural sites will offer the best view of the Quadrantids, but (weather permitting) they should be clearly visible all over the UK.
The next major meteor shower of the year will be the Lyrids, which peak around 22 April. Find out more about annual meteor showers in our fact file.
Image: Meteors in the Quadrantid shower in January 1995. The image superimposed many video frames to illustrate the apparent origin of the meteors from their radiant. Credit: Sirko Molau, IMO, Archenhold-Sternwarte, NASA.