How to See the Ursid Meteor Shower at its Peak Tonight

Illustration for article titled How to See the Ursid Meteor Shower at its Peak Tonight

Photo: Pozdeyev Vitaly (Shutterstock)

Even as life on Earth continues to get worse, cool stuff is happening in space. If you happened to miss the great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn last night, the heavens have absolved you for being remiss, and given you something else to look at: The Ursid Meteor Shower will peak tonight in the Northern Hemisphere.

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Here’s a little background on tonight’s celestial show, and what you need to know to see it light up a sky near you.

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What is the Ursid Meteor Shower?

Not to be confused with the Geminid Meteor Shower—which peaked earlier this month (just one event on December’s crowded astronomic calendar, though they’re still expected to be sporadically visible through Sunday)—the Ursids are an annual event that races through the sky around the winter solstice. They’re not as numerous as the Geminids, which peaked on December 13-14 with 120 meteors per hour, according to Space.com.

The Ursids don’t spark quite as much hype, largely because they only come in bursts of around 5-10 at their peak. They are, however, still brilliant smoldering rocks when you manage to catch them, and on occasion they generate upwards of 100 meteors per hour, though that’s very rare, according to EarthSky.

Meteorologist Joe Rao explains that the Ursids originate near the Little Dipper:

The Ursids are so named because they appear to fan out from the vicinity of the bright orange star Kochab, in the constellation of Ursa Minor, the little bear. Kochab is the brighter of the two outer stars in the bowl of the Little Dipper (the other being Pherkad), that seem to march in a circle like sentries around Polaris, the North Star. But while the Geminids are at the top of most meteor watchers “must see” list, the Ursids are usually at the bottom and are usually given scant attention save for the most assiduous of meteor observers.

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As EarthSky notes, the Ursids are a newer phenomenon, and were only discovered in the 20th century. You’re going to need a dark sky to catch them.

How to see the Ursids

I won’t lead you astray: It’s going to help massively if you’re in the Northern Hemisphere; people in the Southern Hemisphere won’t have much of a chance of seeing the show.

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There’s no hidden secret to catch a good view. All you really is warm clothing and darkened skies, away from any and all light pollution. Be prepared to stay out late, too, as EarthSky notes:

If you look from a Northern Hemisphere location around the time of the solstice, you’ll find the Big Dipper and the star Kochab well up in the north-northeast at around 1:00 a.m your local time. That’s about the time of night you’ll want to start watching this meteor shower.

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Those in more northerly latitudes, like in Canada, will have an easier time spotting the Ursids, but you’ll have to do a little bit of star-mapping to catch them in their full splendor. As EarthSky writes:

From far-northerly latitudes (for example, in Canada), the Little Dipper is circumpolar (out all night). 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.

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This all comes with the caveat that you’ll need to stay outside in the cold to watch the sky, perhaps for a few hours. But you’ve been cooped up too much this year. Just grab a warm coat. The fresh air will do you good.

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