updated 12/20/2010 10:29:19 AM ET 2010-12-20T15:29:19

When skywatchers think of meteor showers during the month of December, they immediately think of the Geminids, which over the years have evolved into the most prolific and reliable of the dozen or so annual meteor displays that take place. And yet, there is also another notable meteor shower that occurs during December that, in contrast, hardly gets much notice at all: the December Ursids. The peak of this meteor display usually occurs on the night of Dec. 22 to Dec. 23.

While the Ursids would normally be difficult to see during this time because of bright light from the full moon, the rare upcoming total lunar eclipse may provide a special chance to catch a glimpse of the Ursid meteor shower.

Check this NASA lunar eclipse chart to see how visible the eclipse will be from different regions around the world.

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. These meteors are sometimes called the Umids, in a rather unsuccessful attempt to make clear that they originate from the direction of Ursa Minor, not Ursa Major. 

Often neglected
The fact that Kochab is positioned so near to the north pole of the sky means that it almost never sets for most viewers in the Northern Hemisphere.

And since the Ursids seem to fan out from this particular region of the sky, you can look for these faint, medium-speed meteors all through the night if you care to. The fact that they reach their peak on Dec. 22 to Dec. 23, however, is not good news for prospective Ursid watchers in 2010, as this coincides with the first full night of winter, with a brilliant nearly full moon that will shine in the sky all night from about 5:00 p.m. local time onward.

This is unfortunate because the underappreciated Ursids "badly need observing," according to the British Astronomical Association.

That observers have neglected the Ursids is not surprising. Everything about them is wintry. 

The Ursid meteor shower usually coincides with the winter solstice, and is best seen by polar bears since they come from near the celestial north pole. In contrast to the Geminids, which can produce up to 120 meteors per hour, the usual Ursid rate is but a fraction of that; generally speaking they produce about a dozen or so per hour at their peak.

The Ursids are actually the dusty debris shed by the periodic comet Tuttle 8P/Tuttle, which circles the sun in a 13.6-year orbit and was last seen in early 2008. On occasion, the Earth has interacted with a dense, narrow stream of particles shed by this comet, which has caused brief outbursts of Ursid meteors numbering in the dozens per hour, but no such interaction is expected this year.

The eclipse will help!
But don't cross the Ursids off your observing calendar just yet. As I noted above, this year they coincide with a brilliant almost-full moon, which likely will squelch visibility of most meteors. If only the moon weren't in the sky

But wait! The night before the Ursid peak (Dec. 20 to Dec. 21) is the long-awaited total eclipse of the moon. In fact, for 72 minutes, while the moon is completely immersed in the Earth's shadow, the moon will appear anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000 times dimmer and will allow many of the fainter stars and even the Milky Way to temporarily appear. [ Amazing photos of a total lunar eclipse ]

And possibly a few Ursid meteors too! Usually not many people would be outside on a cold late-December night looking up at the sky, but the eclipse will be the feature attraction that will draw many outdoors.

So if, while you're admiring the totally eclipsed moon, you happen to also catch sight of a few meteors streaking from out of the northern part of the sky, congratulations! You've probably caught sight of the Ursids.

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Video: Solstice lunar eclipse tonight

  1. Closed captioning of: Solstice lunar eclipse tonight

    >>> tonight that hasn't happened since the year 1638 and it's going to capture attention of well over a billion people across the planet and it's the stuff of folklore throughout history. talking about a full lunar eclipse . it's happening at the peak of winter solstice . we have to go to bed early and watch it ourselves, because it's happening late at night . talking about something that hasn't happened in a long time. last full moon lunar eclipse on the solstice happened hundreds of years ago, some 400 years ago. you can bet celebrants will be going big, perhaps like this. freedom of religion .

    >> that, you see there, is a 30-minute wiccan ritual from a nativist church international. one wiccan high priestess says this is a unique coupling of the masculine energy of the sun with the feminine energy of the moon. now this icon, as i was watching this entire ritual here, chris, they circle around the symbol, which i haven't been able to figure out as of yet, when i know, i'll let you know. interesting in terms of what they're doing there. others to celebrate, portlanding maine, a meditation chanting, they have crystal sing bowls as well. i don't know what that is. also poetry. a dance ceremony in oregon, that tick kicks off 7:00 p.m . local. four hours before the eclipse begins. pretty simple. the sun, the earth , and the moon, they line up. we all know that. perfect line. this causes the earth to cast a huge shadow over the moon , causing it to look like this. bloody red. we've got a picture of that somewhere. here it is. this is what happens when the earth 's atmosphere does something from the light coming from the sun. it acts as a filter. it strips out light from the yellow light from the sun. now, basically only leaves red light hitting the moon. this what happens here, filters it out, and red light hits the moon, bounces back and that's what we see. that's the red light that makes it look so beautiful when watching, again, this lunar eclipse as a light bends there. also factored into this, chris, ash pushing into the atmosphere by volcanos. that can make the moon appear a little bit darker. you can get a sense of what all things will affect. no matter how you mark this first in, let's say, 400 years with kids with friends or, you know, a ritual like this or two, the start time is 1:33 a.m . eastern time . it ends at 5:01 a.m . should be fun.

    >> should be. just so happens i get up at 3:45 every morning. i wouldn't miss it. thank you so much.

    >> i want to bring in with more on the exciting lunar eclipse the director of the hayden planetarium . highly technical question to start off with, how cool is this?

    >> well, it's actually a little less cool than people are making it out to be. first of all, it's a long, drawn-out cosmic event. it takes hours. in the winter, wee hours of the morning i don't know how many people will stay awake in the cold, winter night to watch it.

    >> if you want to say it at its peak on the east coast , set your alarm for the maximum exposure?

    >> so 2:45, 3:00 in the morning. look up for the moon. and it might not even be there because it would have gone deeply into earth shadow as it's cast out into space. this in is what we're looking at, a total lunar eclipse . the moon in its orbit around the earth occasionally enters earth 's shadow and that will happen tonight. it's not as rare as everyone's making it out to be. happens every two or three years. there are two next year. so, what people are getting excited that it's happening on the solstice.

    >> yes.

    >> well --

    >> will it look different than it looked a couple years ago?

    >> no, it's just another day of the year. i could say, it's rare it would happen on my birthday and it would just as rare as it happening on the solstice. these are not rare phenomenon. what's good about a total lunar eclipse , anyone who can see the moon on earth will see the eclipse. un like solar eclipses there's a narrow band where action takes place, you to travel to it, usually in exotic places. we have a chance of a billion people to eyewitness the eclipse.

    >> don't knee a telescope.

    >> binoculars help. it's fun to look at the moon more close up than what your eyes can bring. it will be fun for those who don't mind the cold or don't mind losing sleep.

    >> or those who have a good view from the window. where are l. you be at 3:00?

    >> probably asleep.

    >> you've got to be kidding me.

    >> i like the moon when pie can see it rather than when i can't see it. a quick note about the light coming through earth 's atmosphere, an interesting point, when the moon is deep in the shadow, some light filters refracts around earth 's atmosphere and puts light into the shadow. so we can learn about the conditions of our atmosphere during the peak lunar eclipse , what hues the moon takes on, that's what happens to the sunlight which starts out white, filters through our atmosphere, reflects off the moon. so we can tell whether there's volcanic activities, how our pollution's coming, how clean our air is. that would be interesting to monitor.


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