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This coming week … Ursid meteor shower

The annual Ursid meteor shower always peaks near the time of the December winter solstice, so, in 2015, look for some possible activity over the next few nights. This shower favors the more northerly latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere. This year, you’ll need to try to avoid the moon.

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. Since the waxing gibbous moon is up for most of the night, but sets in the hours before dawn, the predawn hours will be best.

The radiant point of the Ursid shower will climb upward on the sky’s dome after the moon has set. Thus, we expect the modest Ursid shower to produce its greatest number of meteors before dawn on Wednesday, December 23.

Today’s chart, by the way, shows the Big and Little Dippers around 1 a.m. when the Big Dipper is well up in the north-northeast.

EarthSky’s meteor shower guide preview the January, 2016, Quadrantid shower

Kochab and Pherkad guard the North Celestial Pole

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By the way, some meteor showers, like the Perseids in August, have been watched each year at the same time for many centuries. But the Ursid meteor shower 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.

Bottom line: Watch Ursid meteors beginning around now. The 2015 peak is probably on the night of December 22 (best before dawn on December 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.

For the Western Hemisphere, first full moon on Christmas since 1977

Deborah Byrd