This year's winter solstice will be celebrated in the Northern Hemisphere with shooting stars from the Ursids meteor shower.

By Jamie Carter
December 17, 2019

Astronomical winter is coming. Will you celebrate the official beginning of the new season in the Northern Hemisphere with a shooting star or two? This year, the shortest day of the year and the official first day of winter in the Northern Hemisphere — the winter solstice — coincides with the peak of the 2019 Ursids meteor shower. Since the solstice isn’t a visual spectacle, seeing a shooting star is the perfect way to mark the start of a new season.

When is the winter solstice?

Winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere (and summer solstice in the Southern Hemisphere) will occur at precisely 4:19 a.m. Universal Time on Sunday, December 22, 2019. It’s a global event, so in North America, that translates to 11:19 p.m. EST and 8:19 p.m. PST on Saturday, December 21, 2019.

What is the winter solstice?

Caused by Earth’s tilted axis, the winter solstice marks the time when the Northern Hemisphere is tilted away from the sun. The sun is at its lowest point in the sky north of the equator, and it takes a shorter path through the sky. That means the sunlight is the weakest it will be all year, and it’s shining for the shortest amount of time. That’s a double whammy, and it brings the shortest day (and longest night) of the year, and lower temperatures, marking the beginning of winter.

In the Southern Hemisphere, it’s the complete opposite; the sun is at its highest point in the sky, creating the longest day and the shortest night of the year, marking the start of summer.

How do people celebrate the winter solstice?

The winter solstice is celebrated for being the rebirth of the sun because it marks the moment when it’s above the Tropic of Capricorn at noon, which is as far south as it appears to get. After the winter solstice, the days begin to get longer in the Northern Hemisphere.

It’s arguably the reason for we have a mid-winter festival, but winter solstice tends to get lost in Christmas celebrations.

However, there are several events to mark the winter solstice, most famously at Stonehenge in the UK, where visitors from around the world gather at sunrise (this year at 8.04 a.m. GMT) to see the sun rise above the stones. In New York, Paul Winter’s 40th Annual Winter Solstice Celebration concert takes place at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the world’s largest cathedral.

However, a great way to celebrate the winter solstice from any location in the Northern Hemisphere is by looking out for a shooting star or two from the Ursids meteor shower. From North America, it peaks on the evening of Saturday, December 21, 2019, almost the exact same time that the winter solstice occurs.

What is the Ursids meteor shower?

It’s a stream of dust and debris deposited by a comet in Earth’s orbital path around the sun. As particles strike the Earth’s atmosphere, they gather energy, lighting up as they release it. You can expect to see about 10 shooting stars per hour, each of which smashes into Earth’s atmosphere at an astonishing 20 miles per second.

Active between December 17 and December 26, the Ursids meteor shower peaks after dark on December 21 and into the early hours of December 22.

Meteor shower
Credit: Alvaro Tejero/Getty Images/500px Plus

What causes the Ursids meteor shower?

The Ursids meteor shower is caused by Tuttle's Comet, which enters the solar system every 12 years to loop around the sun. It’s due back again in 2021. However, it’s named after the place in the night sky where the shooting stars appear to originate — Kochab, a star in the constellation of Ursa Minor. Ursa Minor—which contains famous constellation the Big Dipper—also contains Polaris, the North Star. Consequently, the Ursids meteor shower is only visible to observers in the Northern Hemisphere.