The annual Ursid meteor shower runs from about December 17 to 26 each year and always peaks around the December solstice, which, in 2020, comes on December 21. The shower’s peak is probably the morning of December 22, but any of the next few mornings should yield some Ursids as well. Then, after the solstice and the shower’s peak, keep watching. You still might catch some!
Generally, the Ursids are a low-key affair, offering perhaps as many as five to 10 meteors per hour in a dark sky. In rare instances, bursts of 100 or more meteors per hour have been observed at times over the past century.
The chart at the top of the page shows the Big and Little Dipper asterisms – in the constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor – for whom the Ursid meteor shower is named. If you look from a Northern Hemisphere location around the time of the solstice, you’ll find the Big Dipper well up in the north-northeast at around 1 a.m. That’s about the time of night you’ll want to start watching this meteor shower.
In 2019, at this shower’s peak, the moon is in waning phase. It was bright in the sky on the mornings of December 18 or 19, but, by the time of the Ursids’ peak around the morning of December 22, the moon will be a thin crescent. It won’t greatly intrude on what’s usually a low-key spattering of Ursid meteors on the mornings of the peak.
This shower isn’t a great one for the Southern Hemisphere. It’s just too far north on the sky’s dome for its radiant point to be easily visible from temperate latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere. As you may know, all meteors in annual showers have radiant points on our sky’s dome; the showers typically take their names from the constellations in which their radiants lie. If you trace the paths of the slow-moving Ursid meteors backward, they appear to come from the section of sky marked by the Little Dipper star Kochab.
On the other hand, the Little Dipper is circumpolar (out all night) for far-northerly latitudes. From there, you’ll find the star Kochab below Polaris, the North Star, at nightfall. Kochab (and all the Little Dipper stars) circle Polaris in a counterclockwise direction throughout the night, with this star reaching its high point for the night in the hours before dawn. And that’s important for meteor-watching, because the higher the radiant climbs in your sky, the more meteors you’re likely to see. Thus for the Ursids – as for so many meteor showers – the best time to watch is in the hours before dawn.
Bottom line: 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. The predawn hours are usually the most favorable.
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and founded EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.