Want to see a shooting star? Tonight is the night!
If the light from the nearly full, waning gibbous Moon scuppered your view of this year's Geminid meteor shower, all is not lost. The Ursid meteor shower, although sparse, peaks just after the winter solstice on a new Moon, so this year could be a great time to spot yourself an Ursid or two.
If you’re keen to make the most of the longer (wrap up warm) nights, make sure you check out our astronomy for beginners' guide and our full Moon calendar. For a full roundup of this year's meteor showers, we’ve got all the essentials listed in our meteor shower calendar.
When can you see the Ursid meteor shower 2022 in the UK?
The Ursid meteor shower begins on 17 December and will continue through to 26 December. The shower reaches its peak on 22-23 December, when we can expect to see up to 10 meteors per hour.
The Ursids have a short period of activity of just over a week, much less than other meteor showers, like the long-lived Orionid meteor shower back in October.
The best time to look up and maximise your chances of spotting an Ursid is between midnight and around 5am, but they should be visible all night. Because the Ursids occur around a week after the peak of the Geminids, it's a fantastic opportunity for another show, should clouds or the pesky full December Moon get in the way earlier in the month.
Where to look
The radiant (the direction from which the meteors appear to originate) is hinted at in its name, and from our view here on Earth, is in the constellation Ursa Minor (The Little Bear). Ursa Minor is a constant feature of northern skies, and as such, is home to the north celestial pole, marked by the pole star, Polaris. Ursa Minor never rises or sets, instead spinning around the pole once every 24 hours.
You can find the radiant by looking directly overhead, and the shape of Ursa Minor is similar to that of the Plough in Ursa Major (The Great Bear), with the tail of Ursa Minor curving away from Polaris.
However, you don't need to be able to see Ursa Minor in order to spot an Ursid. They will be able to be seen across the sky, so if possible, it's good to get to a location where you can scan all of the night sky. Knowing where Ursa Minor is, is a good way to determine whether the meteor you're seeing is an Ursid or a stray Geminid from the tail-end of the Geminid meteor shower.
How many meteors will you be able to see?
During the Ursid meteor shower, you can expect to see a peak of around 10 meteors per hour. The peak activity is relatively short, and we call it the peak zenithal hourly rate (ZHR).
Activity varies year on year, and in reality, for 2022, we might be able to see around 5 to 10 per hour (perhaps less), however, other years are more favourable.
Where do the Ursids come from?
The Ursids are a result of the Comet 8P/Tuttle as it makes its journey around the Sun. As the Earth ploughs through the dust trails left behind by this comet, these particles interact with our atmosphere, producing a trail of excited atoms. This, in turn, produces the light we see as meteors or ‘shooting stars’. Not to be confused with Comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle, which gives us the Leonids.
Comet 8P/Tuttle a periodic comet with an elliptical orbit of around 13.6 years. Radar observations of the comet back in 2008, revealed it to be a contact binary comet, with a nucleus of around 4.5 miles in diameter. A contact binary is an object comprised of two bodies that have gravitated towards each other, the result being a peanut-ish shaped object.
You don't need any special equipment to spot one of these elusive shooting stars, but here's how you can maximise your chances at spotting an Ursid:
- Find an area away from light pollution. Night temperatures on the 22-23 December are expected to be cold (at or below freezing), so be sure to wrap up warm, as you’re probably not going to be moving around much. A thermos and something to eat can provide a nice snack.
- Lie back in a reclining chair, hammock, or on a camp bed, and let your eyes adjust to the darkness for around 10 to 20 minutes. After a while, you'll become more accustomed to seeing meteor trails as they streak across the sky.
- Try not to look at other bright sources of light – such as your phone – during this time.
- If you need to check something on your phone, use a red filter. Many astronomers use red light torches and filters because the rod cells in our eyes are not sensitive to red light, and it doesn’t interrupt the accumulated night vision.
- Similarly, if you're using a reference book, use a red light torch (or make your own) to illuminate the pages.