A fairly strong but brief meteor shower is expected to grace the night sky the night of Jan. 3-4, a nice way to introduce the New Year for anyone who enjoys the starry sky.

Known as the Quadrantid meteor shower, its peak activity lasts less than a day. That’s when you could call it a “shower” if comparing it to rain! The meteor shower spreads out over a couple weeks or so, most of the time barely a “drizzle,” from about Dec. 27 until Jan. 10.

The best chance to see the Quadrantids at their peak is in the predawn hours of Saturday morning, Jan. 4. You may count 15 to 25 meteors an hour; there have been unusual times when a real burst (not a “cloud burst”) occurred and several times as many have been seen (try 50 to 100).

There are many meteor showers throughout the year. Most are made up of bits of rock, dust and pebbles from a disintegrated comet. The stony particles spread out along the length of the former comet’s orbit. If the orbit intersects with the Earth’s orbit, once a year, the Earth, and everyone on it, passes right through the meteor stream.

The particles become swept up by Earth’s gravity, and vaporize as they descend through Earth’s upper atmosphere.

They all seem to radiate from a particular point in the sky, in the direction of the meteor stream. The Quadrantids radiate from a point just past the “handle” stars of the Big Dipper and close to the stars marking the top of the kite-shaped constellation Bootes the herdman (on the opposite end of the “kite” from the well-know bright star of Bootes, the beautiful yellow-orange star Arcturus).

We see the most of any meteor shower when the radiant is above our horizon. This also happens to be when we are on the “preceding” side of the Earth, between midnight and sunrise, as the Earth precedes ahead in its own orbit. The moving Earth literally plows right into the path of the meteors, like a head-on collision.

The radiant rises over the east-northeast horizon. The higher the radiant gets, as the stars rise, the better. Fortunately the nights are long at this time off year.

You don’t have to look in the direction of the radiant; shower members may be seen anywhere in the sky, but an imaginary line will trace back to the radiant. You might also see a stray meteor moving in another path.

The International Meteor Organization is predicting that the peak of the Quadrantids will arrive at about 3 a.m. Eastern Time.

Granted, if you live in mid-northern latitudes or further north, this is normal a VERY cold time of year. Bundling up really well should help, and I like to add a hot cup of cocoa (mixed with a left over Christmas cookie?).

The good news is the waxing gibbous moon will set long before dawn, allowing you to enjoy dark skies in the wee hours.

So, why would anyone name a meteor shower the “Quadrantids”? They are named after an obsolete constellation no longer traced on star maps, called Quadrans Muralis. OK, so why would anyone name a constellation…? (It’s Latin for “mural quadrant” and was named by French astronomer Jerome Lalande in 1795.)

Thanks to earthsky.org for much of this information.

First quarter moon is on Jan. 2.

Keep looking up!

Peter Becker is managing editor at The News Eagle in Hawley, Pennsylvania. Notes are welcome at news@neagle.com. Please mention in what newspaper or website you read this column.