The annual Ursid meteor shower always peaks near the time of the December winter solstice, so, in 2014, look for some possible activity over the next several nights. This shower favors the more northerly latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere, but even at far northerly latitudes, it’s generally a low-key production, not nearly as exciting as the Quadrantids in early January.
Some meteor showers, such as the Perseids in August, have been watched each year at the same time for many centuries. But the Ursid meteor shower, which will probably peak on the nights of December 21 or 22, 2014 has been observed for only a single century. It was first observed around the turn of the 20th century, when a skywatcher noticed that some meteors seen around this time of year weren’t random in their direction of motion across our sky’s dome but instead appeared to radiate from near the star Kochab in the bowl of the Little Dipper asterism.
All meteors in annual showers have radiant points on our sky’s dome, and the showers take their names from the constellations in which the radiant points lie. The Little Dipper asterism is in the constellation Ursa Minor the Lesser Bear – hence, the Ursid meteor shower.
This shower has been known to produce short bursts of over 100 meteors per hour. But typically the shower is much sparser than that. It might produce only five to 10 meteors per hour at its peak.
If you want to watch the Ursids, find a country location where you can camp out. Dress warmly! And plan to spend several hours reclining under a dark sky, sometime during the night. The sky chart, by the way, shows the Big and Little Dippers around midnight, or when the Big Dipper is well up in the north-northeast.
The new moon happens within a few hours of this year’s December solstice, making this an ideal year for the viewing of the December 2014 Ursids. starting around mid-evening. At northerly latitudes, the radiant of the shower is out all night long. The radiant point of the Ursid shower rises upward throughout the night, and reaches its highest point for the night just before dawn. We expect the modest Ursid shower to produce the greatest number of meteors between midnight and dawn on either Monday, December 22, or Tuesday, December 23.
Bottom line: In 2014, watch for meteors in the annual Ursid shower beginning around December 20. The peak numbers will probably happen before dawn on December 22 and/or 23, but you can see meteors in this shower for several days around the December solstice. As many as 100 meteors per hour have been seen – but only in short bursts. Expect 5 to 10 meteors per hour. The radiant point is in the Little Dipper asterism in the northern sky.