Solstice Fireballs

Ursa Major
Ursa Major – the Great Bear – and the Big Dipper where the Ursid meteor shower seems to originate.

As is often the case here in December, viewing conditions for watching meteor showers recently for the Geminids were lousy – clouds and rain. There’s another chance this week for a smaller event.

The annual Ursid meteor shower was visible to some starting earlier this week (clouds and rain for me again) but it typically peaks around the Winter Solstice. The Ursids are not as impressive a show as the Geminids, but I’ve missed seeing almost any meteors all year so I’m hungry to catch at least a few this time. And with my sons and daughters-in-law visiting for the holidays, I will probably push them outside on a clear night to watch for a fireball.

The Ursid meteor shower runs from about December 17 to 26 each year. I associate it with the Winter Solstice and Christmas so it does have a kind of special place in my celestial calendar.

waning crescent moonThe Moon will be in its waning crescent phase this weekend which will make the sky much darker than it was for the Geminids. On Christmas Day there will be a dark as possible New Moon.

The Ursids may show 5-10 meteors per hour in a dark sky with a rare burst of more (near 100) in some years.

The Ursids get there name from where they appear to originate. Look to the Big and Little Dipper asterisms which are in the constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor.

Ursa Major, the Great Bear, is a constellation in the northern sky. The Latin name means “greater (or larger) she-bear” to contrast it with the nearby Ursa Minor, the lesser bear. It was one of the original 48 constellations listed by Ptolemy in the 2nd century AD.  Ursa Major is well known for the asterism of its main seven stars, which we call the Big Dipper which resembles the Little Dipper in Ursa Minor. The bears’ tails are the handle of the dipper cups.

Ursa Minor may be smaller but it contains Polaris, better known as commonly the North Star or Pole Star, which is the brightest star in this constellation.

For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere this weekend, the Big Dipper is pretty far up in the north-northeast sky by midnight. From midnight into early morning is a good time to watch. I think I’ll make some nice late-night hot toddies tomorrow night to lure the kids outside.

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Ken Ronkowitz

A lifelong educator on and off the Internet. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

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