SCIENCE + TECHNOLOGY

Look up to the sky for the last meteor shower of the year

Dec 21, 2022, 11:00 AM
Ursids meteor shower
(Andrew Ward/Adobe Stock
21 Dec 22)...
Ursids meteor shower (Andrew Ward/Adobe Stock 21 Dec 22)

(CNN) — A gift from the skies is coming just in time for the holidays — the Ursids meteor shower. This celestial event will be the last meteor shower of 2022.

The Ursids typically produce only around five to 10 visible meteors an hour, according to EarthSky. While the rates are not as high as other annuals, this year’s shower is set to peak on the night of December 21 with a new moon at only 3% fullness, offering particularly great visibility for people in the Northern Hemisphere, where it will be viewable.

Occasionally, the Ursids have been known to exceed 25 meteors an hour, and even 100 meteors an hour in the years 1945 and 1986. But NASA is not expecting anything out of the ordinary this year, according to Bill Cooke, NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office lead.

The Ursids shower began on December 13 and will be active until December 24. Still, Cooke suggests viewing the meteor shower close to the night of its peak — if not that night, then the one before or after.

“They’re not terribly faint, but they’re not terribly bright either. The Ursids are a good medium strength meteor shower,” Cooke said. “They’re certainly not the Geminids or Perseids, but hey, if you got time to kill while you’re waiting for Santa, it’s probably a good thing to do.”

The Ursids are often overlooked due to their proximity to the Geminids shower, which peaked December 13 and also can be observed until December 24.

“Meteor observers have historically not spent much time with this one since it falls so close to Christmas,” Cooke said. “Grad students in meteor science used to call them the “Cursed Ursids” because no one wanted to get stuck observing them.”

Viewing the Ursids

But any meteor shower can still be an awe-inspiring spectacle. If optimal viewing conditions are enough to entice casual onlookers to brave the cold for a chance to spot an Ursids meteor, Robert Lunsford, fireball report coordinator for the American Meteor Society, recommends watching during the early morning hours of December 22.

“(The Ursids) can be very erratic. I’ve viewed them under perfect conditions and not seen any, and on other times, I’ve seen them outburst at 25 per hour,” Lunsford said. “You don’t know what you’re going to get, but the conditions are almost perfect this year. If you go out to a dark sky, you’ll probably see between five and 10 Ursids per hour.”

The Ursids come from the 8P/Tuttle comet (otherwise known as Tuttle’s Comet), an older comet that does not produce much debris. In the sky, the meteors appear to radiate from the constellation Ursid Minor, more commonly known as the Little Dipper. To differentiate these meteors from the Geminids, viewers should locate the constellation and identify which meteors appear to come from its direction.

“They are visible all night long, because the radiant is very, very far north and never sets,” Lunsford said. “During the evening hours, (the radiant) will only be just a hair over the northern horizon, which means that most of the meteors will be blocked by the horizon, so your best bet is to watch during the last couple hours before dawn.”

The further north you are, the better the visibility for this event, Lunsford said. (For those in the Southern Hemisphere, the shower will not be visible, since the radiant will not rise above the horizon.)

While this shower is the last for the year, sky observers won’t have long to wait for the peak of the Quantrantids meteor display, which will be ringing in the new year just a little belatedly on the night of January 3, 2023.

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Look up to the sky for the last meteor shower of the year