The sight before Christmas – how to view the Ursid meteor shower

December is usually looked forward to by amateur astronomers for the appearance of the Geminid meteor shower, which is possibly the strongest shower of the year, rivalling summer’s Perseids.

Quadrantid meteor
A bright meteor (not an Ursid) flies close to the head of Draco. Image credit: Paul Sutherland

This year, the maximum of the Geminids was drowned out by the near-Full Moon, which is why you did not see a post on this site recommending you sit out to watch it.

Conditions are a lot more favourable for a more minor meteor shower that delivers meteors from around the 17th of December to the 24th. It is known as the Ursids because the radiant lies in the constellation of Ursa Minor.

As with all meteor showers, the individual “shooting stars” can be seen I any part of the sky. The radiant is the point where the paths of these meteors intersect if you trace them back across the sky. In other words, it marks the direction from which they are arriving from deep space.

How to observe meteors

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You can see meteors at any time when the radiant of a shower is above the horizon. If you live in the northern hemisphere, this means that you get the chance to see them for most of the night, since the radiant is circumpolar, meaning it does not set for most northern latitudes.

However the radiant will be low down in the early part of the night, reducing the numbers of meteors. During the hours before dawn, it rises higher in the sky offering a better opportunity to see some.

To be honest, rates will be so low away from the night of maximum, on the 21st/22nd of December, that it will not be worth casual observers having a look. But on the morning of the 22nd, you may see 5-10 meteors an hour under ideal conditions, according to the International Meteor Organization, and in some years there have been outbursts which produced 25 meteors an hour.

So don’t expect a dazzling spectacle, but it will definitely be worth keeping half an eye on the sky, especially as you always have the chance of seeing some meteors unrelated to the Ursid shower too, otherwise known as sporadics, during the night.

If you don’t see anything, don’t worry – we’re only a couple of weeks away from the start of the Quadrantids which have given me some beautiful meteors and will be well worth watching out for!

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By Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland has been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. He writes regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy, plus he has authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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