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Ursid meteors around December solstice

Start looking for Ursid meteors this weekend. They’re active around this upcoming solstice. In 2015, a bright moon will diminish the visible meteors at the peak.

The annual Ursid meteor shower always peaks near the time of the December winter solstice. In 2015, look for some possible activity starting this weekend. But the moon is waxing now, and first quarter moon is tomorrow night (December 18, 2015). So the Ursid shower will have to contend with the light of a bright waxing gibbous moon across the weekend and in the days ahead. This shower favors the more northerly latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere. 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 just 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 2015 Ursid meteor shower, which will probably peak on the night of December 22 (best in the hours before dawn on December 23) 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.

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Ursid meteors radiate from very far north on the sky's dome, near the Big and Little Dippers.

Ursid meteors radiate from very far north on the sky’s dome, near the Big and Little Dippers.

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. In a dark sky, it might produce only five to 10 meteors per hour at its peak.

This year, 2015, the Ursid shower must contend with a bright moon. The full moon happens a few days after the 2015 December solstice.

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.

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 December 23.

Bottom line: In 2015, you can try watching meteors in the annual Ursid shower beginning around December 19 or 20, but the bright waxing moon will obstruct the view in 2015. The peak numbers will probably happen before dawn on December 23, but meteors in this annual shower are active for several days around the December solstice. 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 probably lessen the number in 2015. The radiant point is in the Little Dipper asterism in the northern sky.

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EarthSky’s meteor shower guide

Bruce McClure