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Meteor quest turns up treasures

(c) Jeff Berkes Photography

This photo combines the landscape of the Florida Keys with the flash of a meteor above on the night of Jan. 3-4, at the peak of the Quadrantid meteors.

January is the perfect time for a road trip to Florida, and if there's a promising meteor shower to see, so much the better. That's what brought photographer Jeff Berkes down from Pennsylvania to the Florida Keys. The payoff came in the form of a stunning set of pictures showing the Quadrantid meteors at their peak.

"The Florida Keys sounded really good in January for the Quadrantid meteor shower, but Mother Nature had the cold front follow me all the way south," Berkes wrote in his Flickr photo gallery. "The record low temperature for Key West is 41 degrees. It went down to 46, with winds around 20-30 mph near Big Pine Key this particular night on January 3rd / 4th, 2012."

Berkes bundled up in two sweatshirts and a fleece, plus "a mad bomber hat" and winter gloves. Then he waited for the light show to begin. He wasn't disappointed.

One picture shows twisted trees in the Keys, with a meteor flashing in the sky above. "That was captured earlier in the night, while the moon was still up," Berkes told me in an email. "It might even be just a random meteor instead of a Quadrantid meteor."

Scientists say the Quadrantids are sparked every year on the night of Jan. 3-4, when Earth passes through the trail of cosmic grit left behind by a burnt-out comet now known as asteroid 2003 EH1. These particular meteors appear to emanate from a now-obsolete constellation known as Quadrans Muralis, or the Mural Quadrant. That's why they're known as the Quadrantids.

This year was a particularly good year for the "Quads," in part because because the moon had set by the time the meteor shower really got going. This year's shower was reported to reach a peak ratae of roughly 80 shooting stars per hour in the wee hours of Jan. 4. Berkes benefited from a bonus: the faint glow of the zodiacal light. You can see it in the picture below:

(c) Jeff Berkes Photography

A green light pen was used to add "2012" as a signature to this photo of a meteor and the zodiacal light over the Florida Keys.

"The triangular column of light you see is the zodiac lights, stretching up into the night sky before dawn," Berkes told me. "Light coming from the sun [while it's] well below the horizon is scattered by 'space dust,' making it visible in dark locations before sunrise and after sunset. It is definitely something I do not see every day."

Berkes said he counted close to 100 meteors while he was out. He has mastered a technique called "light painting," which calls for adding illumination to a night scene during a long exposure. We featured one of his light-painting photos last fall during the Orionid meteor shower, and you can see the effect in these photo as well.

"The '2012' in green is just another light-painting trick with a special green pen," he wrote. "The Quadrantids of 2012 were certainly better than 2011. I'm thinking it could be a sign that 2012 will be an even better year than 2011."

I'm thinking the same... Or at least wishing it will be so.

Check out Berkes' Flickr photostream or his Web site for additional visual treasures. You'll find more Quadrantid images at the SpaceWeather.com Web site. There could be still more night-sky sights on the way: SpaceWeather.com's Tony Phillips says a coronal mass ejection from the sun "might deliver a glancing blow to Earth's magnetic field" on Saturday, sparking enhanced auroras.

The next big meteor show is farther out on the schedule: The Lyrids are due to reach their peak on the night of April 22-23. 

More meteoric marvels:

Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter or adding Cosmic Log's Google+ page to your circle. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for other worlds.