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Quadrantid meteor shower: Will moon wash out the show?

Quadrantid meteor shower-watchers will have to deal with a three-quarter-full moon, but the event peaks overnight Wednesday, meaning the show will go on.

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A meteor streaks across the sky near Lafayette, Ind., during the annual Geminid meteor shower in December. The Quadrantid meteor shower, the first of 2013, peaks Wednesday night.

Michael Heinz/Journal & Courier/AP/File

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Just when you thought the New Year's fireworks were over, a defunct comet is providing a natural encore.

One of the year's meteoric show stoppers – the Quadrantid meteor shower – peaks overnight Wednesday.

Anyone with the good fortune of living under very dark skies on a moonless night could expect to see as many as 120 meteors an hour when the shower's source region in the sky – or radiant – is directly overhead.

Wednesday, however, the shower will have competition from a moon nearly three-quarters full, so moonlight will mask most of the dimmer bulbs on the shelf. Given the moon's phase, that translates into a rate of between five and 10 meteors an hour visible to people from urban centers through suburbs and into rural areas, according to estimates from the American Meteor Society.

The shower actually spans six days, starting Jan. 1. But this year Earth is encountering the bulk of this cosmic debris in the predawn darkness of Jan. 3.

While other meteor showers typically derive their names from constellations near each shower's radiant, the Quadrantids appear to come from a kind of netherworld between the end of the Big Dipper's handle and the four stars that comprise the head of Draco, the dragon. Astronomers already recognize a meteor shower each October as the Draconids. The Ursids come each December. And it's hard to get excited about something that could have been named the Dippids. So Quadrantids it is. Warning: You can't take that explanation to the bank.

Skywatchers have been observing the Quadrantids at least since 1825.

Somewhere between a short item entitled "Account of the Poison Plants of the Southern Parts of Brazil" and "Professor Buckland's Notice of the Hyaena's Den near Torqay," the Edinbrugh Philosophical Journal informed its readers that "on the 2d of January 1825, about 5 a.m.; Antonio Brucalassi ... observed ... a singular electric phenomenon." He saw what researchers later would refer to as a fireball, with "a great number of shooting stars ... seen before and after the appearance of the meteor." The issue was dated 1826.

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