Ursid meteor shower 2020: when it is, how to see it

The Ursid meteor shower makes for a great excuse to get the family looking up at the night sky over the Christmas period. Our guide will show you how.

Leave your telescope and binoculars at home. Meteor showers are best spotted with the naked eye. Credit: Isa Terli/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The Ursid meteor shower 2020 takes place from 17–26 December, with peak nights occurring on 21/22 and 22/23 December.

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The Ursids’ peak occurs at 09:00 UT on 22 December and the Moon will be close to first quarter at this time, setting early to leave much of the remaining long, dark night for Ursid watching.

A chart showing the region of the sky you'll need to watch to see an Ursid meteor. Credit: Pete Lawrence
A chart showing the region of the sky you’ll need to watch to see an Ursid meteor. Note the Ursid radiant. More on this below. Credit: Pete Lawrence

How many Ursid meteors will be visible?

While the Geminid meteor shower grabs the December limelight, the Ursid shower tends to take a back seat.

The peak zenithal hourly rate (ZHR) of the Ursid shower is around 10 meteors per hour and while this might not seem that tempting compared to the 140–150 of the Geminids, there is an alert for heightened activity this year, although not all predictions are favourable for the UK.

Zenithal hourly rate represents the number of meteors an observer could expect to see during peak activity, but under perfect conditions: clear, dark skies away from light pollution.

Given these caveats, if you’re out in the field doing a spot of meteor watching, you should expect the actual number to be lower.

For more info and advice, read our meteor shower guide.

Watching a meteor shower doesn't require any fancy equipment: just clear, dark skies, warm clothing and some good company. Credit: Anthony Sabatino / EyeEm / Getty Images
Watching a meteor shower doesn’t require any fancy equipment: just clear, dark skies, warm clothing and some good company. Credit: Anthony Sabatino / EyeEm / Getty Images

When is the best time to see an Ursid meteor?

Three peaks of heightened activity have been predicted for 22 December, generally between 03:00–22:00 UT and specifically at 05:27 UT and 06:10 UT. The specific times of some of these peaks indicate that activity bursts may be short.

However, for the three predictions mentioned here, the estimated ZHRs could be in the order of 420, 34 and 490 meteors per hour respectively.

Although it’s tempting to identify peak night as the best time to go out and view a meteor shower, the important science requires monitoring for a whole period of activity. Only then can modelling be used to predict future outbursts.

A red torch enables you to check charts without ruining dark adapted vision.
A red torch enables you to check charts without ruining dark adapted vision, and a reclining chair helps prevent neck-ache during long periods of looking up. Credit: BBC Sky at Night Magazine

How to see an Ursid meteor

Meteor showers are a great astronomical phenomenon to observe because they are best seen with the naked eye, meaning you don’t require any fancy equipment to spot them.

This also makes them great to get kids involved: even if they can’t stay up until peak activity, it’s a good chance to get children looking up at the night sky. For more on this, read our guide to stargazing for kids.

Find a place that is dark and away from light pollution, such as a location away from towns and cities, provided it is safe to do so and within COVID restrictions where you are.

If you have a back garden and live under dark skies, you already have an advantage over many other meteor observers, as you can observe from the comfort of your own garden.

The glare of light pollution can be a menace for amateur astronomers. Credit: Steve Marsh
The glare of light pollution can be a menace if you’re trying to spot a meteor shower. Try to get away to a darker site, provided it is safe to do so and within COVID restrictions where you are. Credit: Steve Marsh

Turn off all the lights in your house to get things really dark. Avoid using lights such as torches and mobile phones as this will spoil your natural night vision, which develops as your eyes become attuned to the darkness.

This is good advice whatever form of stargazing you’re undertaking, as it will help you see more stars and other phenomena in the night sky.

It will take around 20 minutes for your eyes to dark adapt, but hopefully after a little wait you should start to see meteors shooting across the sky.

Remember: clear nights are cold nights, especially in December! You will be sitting still for a long time, so wrap up warm, bring something to eat and perhaps a hot drink as well.

It’s also a good idea to use a reclining chair to prevent neck-ache from looking up at the night sky for long periods.

The Plough’s stars are a great first target from which you can star-hop to other constellations. Credit: BBC Sky at Night Magazine.
Use the Plough to help you find the Pole Star and Ursa Minor. This is the region of sky in which you’ll see Ursid meteors during late December. Credit: BBC Sky at Night Magazine.

Where do I look in the sky to see an Ursid meteor?

The area of the sky from which a meteor shower appears to originate is known as the ‘radiant’. For example, the Geminids are so-called because they seem to radiate out from the constellation of Gemini.

The Ursids appear to originate from Ursa Minor, the constellation in which Polaris, or the Pole Star, can be found. Read our guide on how to star hop to help you locate Ursa Minor using the Plough asterism.

If you’re still struggling, you can always download an astronomy app to help. Just remember to turn your phone to red light mode to avoid spoiling your dark adapted vision.

If you manage to see a meteor streaking across the sky between 17–26 December and appearing to originate from Ursa Minor , chances are you’ve seen an Ursid.

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Pete Lawrence is an experienced astronomer and a co-host of The Sky at Night. This guide originally appeared in the December 2020 issue of BBC Sky at Night Magazine