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Look Up! The Ursid Meteor Shower Is an Early Holiday Present

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A screenshot of the Earth (blue orbit) crossing the debris stream (sparkly white path) left by comet 8P/Tuttle during the comet's 14-year orbit around the Sun. Image Credit: Ian Webster

 
Two days before Hanukkah and three before Christmas, the cosmos will bring you an early holiday gift—no telescope required. The Ursid meteor shower peaks in the early morning hours of December 22, after midnight through dawn. It's not the most spectacular shower of the year, but it is the last one of 2016, and it'll tide you over until the Quadrantids next month. (And making a big production of going outside to watch the sky is a pretty good way to drop a big hint about that telescope you want for Christmas or Hanukkah.)

Danielle Moser, a meteor scientist with the Meteoroid Environment Office at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, tells mental_floss that you can expect to see a handful of meteors if you're patient. "Not all of the meteors you’ll see while out observing belong to the Ursid meteor shower—some are sporadic background meteors and some belong to other active showers. If you see a meteor, try to trace it backwards. If you end up near the Little Dipper, there’s a good chance you’ve seen an Ursid."

HOW 8P/TUTTLE WAS DISCOVERED… TWICE

The Ursids among the constellations. Image Credit: Stellarium

 
While some meteor showers have been studied for millennia, the Ursids have only been observed for a relatively short time. The shower's parent is comet 8P/Tuttle, discovered in 1790 by Pierre Méchain. Decades later, in 1858, it was rediscovered by Horace Tuttle, and thus earned its name. (Don't feel bad for poor Pierre, though. He discovered so many things in his lifetime that he probably wouldn't remember this meager little comet anyway.)

Around the turn of the century, William Denning, an amateur astronomer and renowned comet hunter from England, recognized the radiant, or the seeming point of origin, of the Ursid meteor shower. The association with the Tuttle comet was immediately suspected, and later observations would confirm it.

It turns out Tuttle is a "contact binary"—a small, solar system object made of two bodies that have gravitated toward each other until they touch, like the rubber-ducky shaped 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. We know now that Tuttle's orbit around the Sun takes just under 14 years. As it goes about its orbit, it leaves behind a trail of particles that, over the centuries, has organized. When the Earth crosses into this debris field, those particles slam into our atmosphere and burn away. That release of energy takes the appearance of "shooting stars." A meteor shower is born.

WHEN TO WATCH

The shower appears to originate in the Little Dipper, which is how it gets its name. The formal name of the Little Dipper is Ursa Minor, which translates as Little Bear. (Of course, some will argue it looks a lot more like a spoon.)

The shower will appear highest in the sky in the hours before sunrise on December 22, so set your alarm clock accordingly. The shower can produce around 10 meteors per hour, and to see them, all you’ll need is to find a place with no light and look up.

Moser suggests that you keep a thermos of hot chocolate in your hands and your phone in your pocket. "You'll see more meteors if you let your eyes adjust to the dark," she says. "As soon as you look at a bright light source like your phone, you have to start the adjustment process all over again! And hot chocolate will keep you warm and awake while patiently braving the cold December weather."

The Ursids have had some pretty spectacular showings—most notably in 1986, with spikes on the order of 100 meteors per hour. Don't get your hopes up for a wild display in 2016, however. Rather, appreciate the Ursids for what they are: an annual tradition of rare and romantic shooting stars in a beautiful, wintry, night sky. Enjoy the last big meteor shower of the year, and if it convinces someone to gift you a telescope, get ready: There are some astounding celestial wonders waiting for us in the new year.

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Eclipses Belong to Families That Span Millennia
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If you’re lucky enough to see the solar eclipse when it passes over America on August 21, you’ll bear witness to a centuries-long legacy. That’s because total eclipses of the sun aren’t isolated incidents that occur at random. They belong to interconnected eclipse families that humans have been using to track the phenomena since long before the first telescope was invented.

In the latest installment of StarTalk on Mashable, Neil deGrasse Tyson chats with meteorologist Joe Rao about the science behind eclipse families. According to Rao, eclipses follow Saros cycles which repeat every 18 years, 11 days, 8 hours. Astronomers keep track of many different Saros cycles. The eclipse on August 21, for example, is a member of the family Solar Saros 145. Every 18 years a Saros 145 eclipse falls over a different third of the Earth. In 1999, the great American eclipse’s “cousin” appeared in the skies over Europe and south Asia, and 18 years before that another relative could be seen over modern Russia. The Solar Saros clan can be traced all the way back to 1639 and it will keep going until 3009.

Today, scientists have space-age technology that allows them to track the moment of totality down to a fraction of a second. But thousands of years ago, before such satellite-tracking equipment was invented, ancient Babylonians only knew what they could observe from Earth. Their eclipse calculations ended up serving them pretty well: They were able to predict the same 18-year cycle we know to be true today.

Saros 145 isn’t the only family of eclipses making its way around the Earth. There are enough solar eclipse cycles to make the event a fairly common occurrence. If you’re curious to see how many will happen in your lifetime, here’s where you can calculate the number.

[h/t Mashable]

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7 Maps of Fun Eclipse Viewing Locations
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Do you have your protective glasses and camera filter ready for the great American solar eclipse on August 21? Perfect. Now all you need to do is pick the ideal location for scoping out the event. Fortunately, the path of totality (the area from which the moon’s total coverage of the sun is visible) stretches from Oregon to South Carolina, and there are plenty of places in between where you can set up camp. We’ve tracked down maps of some of the most unique locations that will fall beneath the moon’s shadow on Monday.

1. WATCH FROM A NATIONAL PARK.

What better place to witness one of the most stunning events in nature than from a national park? Using data from NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio, the National Park Service has published a map of sites that will provide the best views of the celestial show. Several locations, from Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the East to John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in the West, fall in the path of totality. Click any marker in the interactive map to see if that place is hosting viewing events or other eclipse-related activities on August 21.

2. WATCH FROM THE CLOUDS.

When viewed from Earth, a total eclipse lasts only a few minutes. One way to get the most out of the experience is to head into the sky. You don’t need to board an invitation-only flight to see the eclipse from a bird's-eye perspective. There are plenty of airports in the path of totality, and NASA has compiled them all into a helpful map. In addition to choosing your departure and arrival points carefully, you’ll need to get the timing right. According to The Points Guy, taking an eastbound flight from a Pacific Northwest airport around 9 a.m., or a Denver, Colorado area airport around 10 a.m. will put you in a golden position for eclipse chasing—that’s assuming you can book a last-minute flight.

3. WATCH FROM A WAFFLE HOUSE.

On August 21, many Waffle House patrons will be treated to a mind-blowing experience—and we’re not talking about the topped and smothered hashbrowns. During the eclipse’s final hours it will be visible from dozens of Waffle Houses in the southern U.S. To choose a restaurant for viewing, refer to this map of Waffle Houses in the path of totality, put together by University of Georgia assistant geography professor Jerry Shannon. (He also tried making an eclipse map of Tim Hortons locations, but sadly fans of the Canadian chain won’t be so lucky.)

4. WATCH WHILE EATING FRIED CHICKEN.

Want some chicken to go with your waffles? Eclipse gazers watching from the southern states should have no trouble doing that. Twitter user Taber Andrew Bain made this map of fast food chicken joints that intersect with the path of totality. Bojangles' represents a healthy portion of the spots with 86 locations in the strip, but Zaxby’s is the most abundant by far with 117.

5. WATCH WITH WILDLIFE.

One of the more bizarre side effects of a solar eclipse is the reaction animals have to the sudden darkness. As most creatures time their habits to the rising and setting of the sun, totality can prompt different species to wake up, prepare for sleep, or just go berserk. We recommend watching this bizarre behavior with something separating you from the animals. NASA published a handy map of zoos that fall in the eclipse zone where you can do just that.

6. WATCH WITH SASQUATCH.

It’s not every day a solar eclipse occurs in your backyard, and it’s definitely not every day that you get to watch it in the company of Bigfoot. This map from cartographer and data visualization guru Joshua Stevens plots reported Sasquatch sightings in relation to the trajectory of the solar eclipse. It’s too bad that a bona fide Bigfoot encounter is a lot less likely to happen than a total solar eclipse—and even if you do spot the hairy guy on the big day, it might be hard to convince others of The X-Files-worthy coincidence.

7. WATCH FROM A LIBRARY.

Map of libraries hosting eclipse viewing events.
STAR_Net's NASA@ My Library initiative, Space Science Institute, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, NASA, and Google.

Your local library isn’t just a great place to pick up free protective glasses leading up to the eclipse. It can also be a fun spot to witness the event itself. Libraries around the country are hosting viewing events on the day of, where visitors will be provided with the proper equipment and information about what they’re seeing. Check out NASA’s map of libraries organizing such programs to find one close to you.

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