This weekend, start watching for Ursid meteors, which peak each year around the time of the December solstice. In 2016, the peak probably comes on the night of December 21 (best in the hours before dawn on December 22). As many as 100 meteors per hour have been seen – but only in short bursts. You might see 5 to 10 meteors per hour in a dark sky, but moonlight will likely lessen the number in 2016. Last quarter moon comes on the night of December 20-21. We have some tips below on how to watch when there’s a moon in the sky. Just be aware that this shower favors more northerly latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere. And, even at far northerly latitudes, it’s generally a low-key production, not nearly as exciting as the Quadrantids in early January.
Not scared off yet? Keep reading, and you might see some meteors.
Some meteor showers, such as the Perseids in August, have been watched each year at the same time for many centuries. But the 2016 Ursid meteor shower has been observed for only a single century. The shower 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 the shower is typically much sparser. In a dark sky, it might produce only five to 10 meteors per hour at its peak.
If you want to watch the Ursids in 2016, 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 moon will be unavoidable in 2016 during the peak morning hours for observing the Ursids. Try placing to place yourself in a moon shadow for observing. This might be the shadow of a barn, or high hedge, anywhere you can see a large area of sky that doesn’t include the moon.
At very northerly latitudes – say, latitudes like that of the northern U.S. and Europe – the radiant of the shower is out all night. Should you try observing in the evening, when the moon is down? Up to you. Just know that the radiant point of the Ursid shower rises upward throughout the night, and reaches its highest point for the night just before dawn.
Bottom line: In 2016, you can try watching for meteors in the annual Ursid shower beginning this weekend (say, around the mornings of December 18 or 19), but the waning moon interfere. The peak numbers will probably happen before dawn on December 22, but meteors in this annual shower are active for several days around the December solstice.
Bruce McClure has served as lead writer for EarthSky's popular Tonight pages since 2004. He's a sundial aficionado, whose love for the heavens has taken him to Lake Titicaca in Bolivia and sailing in the North Atlantic, where he earned his celestial navigation certificate through the School of Ocean Sailing and Navigation. He also writes and hosts public astronomy programs and planetarium programs in and around his home in upstate New York.