The Quadrantids, which peak on the morning of January 3rd, is one of the year's best meteor showers. But whereas showers are usually spread out over several days or even weeks, most of the meteors in this display arrive over just a few hours.
You can start your new year off right, skywatching-wise, by taking in the Quadrantid meteor shower. It peaks on Thursday morning, January 3rd, with the best viewing opportunity between 1 a.m. and dawn. As always, try to observe the shower from the darkest possible location. This year there's competition from a waning gibbous Moon, whose scattered light will wash out the faintest of these "shooting stars."
Depending on your point of view, the "Quads" are the least-known major meteor shower or the best of the minor showers. They can be quite intense, with some people reporting more than one meteor per minute from dark observing sites. But whereas most showers are spread out over several days or even weeks, most of the Quadrantids fall in just a few hours.
So your location is critical — you'll only see a spectacular display if the shower's radiant is high in the sky close to the time when the most meteoroids are hitting Earth's atmosphere. For 2013, Canadian meteor experts Margaret Campbell-Brown and Peter Brown predict peak activity around 13:00 Universal Time (5:00 a.m. PST), which favors observers in far western North and South America, the Pacific, and (before dawn on the 4th) easternmost Asia.
This shower gets its name from the obsolete constellation Quadrans Muralis, the Mural Quadrant, that was located in a dim region about halfway from the end of the Big Dipper’s handle to the head of Draco. That's where these meteors appear to radiate from as they arrive. Their source is not a comet, as is typical for showers, but rather an asteroid called 2003 EH1. Dynamicists suspect it is a dead chunk of a comet that broke apart several centuries ago, and that the meteors are small bits of debris from this fragmentation.
Because the Quadrantids are so brief, and because they're only visible from northerly latitudes at the coldest time of night during the coldest part of winter, this shower isn't very well documented. There's a strong suspicion that the Quadrantids vary a lot from one year to the next, but this might just be a statistical fluke due to the relatively small number of reports. That makes your observations particularly valuable. See our article on Advanced Meteor Observing and the International Meteor Organization website to find out how to prepare a scientifically useful report.
Finally, make sure to stay warm. Bundle up in as many clothes as possible, paying especial attention to your head, and then snuggle into a warm sleeping bag. Relax in a reclining chair to keep you off the cold ground, and if possible, put an insulating pad between the chair and your sleeping bag. And don't forget to have fun!
For details about the visibility of other flashy displays of shooting stars coming up this year, check out Meteor Showers in 2013.