A crisp wind blew off the Gulf of Mexico as photojournalist and commercial photographer Mark Wallheiser set up his camera on a tripod near the edge of the water. He unfolded his camping chair, opened a cold beer and settled in for a long evening of stargazing.
Wallheiser spent last December 20 capturing long exposure shots of the Christmas Star, a bright light formed by the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, catching a shooting star from the Ursid meteor shower in one of his images.
This year, the Ursid meteor shower will take place on the morning of December 22, but it could be spotted in the sky anytime between December 17 and December 26, according to EarthSky.
The Ursids are often overshadowed by the more active Geminid meteor shower earlier in the month, but it is still a sight to behold.
It will be a low-key affair since the moonlight will wash out most of the shooting stars, said Bill Cooke, lead of the NASA Meteoroid Environment Office. This is because the moon will still be mostly visible after the full moon on December 18.
Stargazers south of the equator who are hoping to catch a glimpse of this shower are out of luck. The Ursids are only visible in the Northern Hemisphere, Cooke said.
Cooke nicknamed this meteor shower the “cursed Ursids” because it is often overshadowed by Christmas, which means it is often poorly observed.
The meteors come from Comet 8P/Tuttle, he said. Their radiant, or where they appear to an Earthbound obsever to originate in the sky, is Ursa Minor, according to NASA. Most people know Ursa Minor as the Little Dipper.
Viewers can typically see about five meteors per hour, Cooke said, but due to this year’s bright moonlight, people will be lucky if they see one or two per hour, Cooke explained.
Despite that obstacle, Wallheiser said he plans on taking photos of the Ursids this year “because it’s a whole lot better than watching TV.”
The freelance photographer has taken photos for 45 years and chased images of meteor showers and other celestial phenomenon for much of that time. Wallheiser currently takes photos where he lives in Shell Point, a small town outside of Tallahassee, Florida.
How to watch the shower
Whether you’re taking a mental image or a physical one of the shower, it’s important to follow some guidelines for the best viewing experience.
Cooke recommended stargazers find a dark spot away from city lights so their eyes can adjust to the night sky. That includes no peeking at your cell phone, he added.
He also suggested viewers lie on their back for the best stargazing experience.
For those hoping to bring home a photo souvenir, Wallheiser said a tripod and a camera with long exposure capabilities is a must. Stargazers should also have a fast lens, meaning it is an f/2.8 or faster, he added.
If you want an object in your photo as well, it needs to have similar lighting to the sky, Wallheiser said.
Then it all comes down to patience.
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