It’s eyes on the skies over the next few weeks as Scotland’s stargazers prepare for some potentially dazzling celestial shows.
With three of some of the brightest meteor showers ahead, we have the Leonids and the Ursids as well as the Geminids to look forward to.
Meteor showers occur when the Earth ploughs into small particles in space left behind by a comet or asteroid.
The particles are about the size of a grain of sand and what we are actually looking at is the glow of the hot air shining because of the friction caused by the high speed they’re travelling at.
If it is a clear night then they are often visible with the naked eye but of course that is dependent on the notoriously fickle Scottish weather, but with some dark and frosty nights ahead we could be in for a bit of luck.
In recent years, some lucky observers have seen some spectacular displays.
The best place to see a meteor shower, as ever, will be away from large areas of light so it’s best to get out of the city limits and wrap up warm.
Meteors also often come in spurts so allow yourself plenty of viewing time. Your best time to see them will generally be between the hours of midnight and dawn.
There’s no need to use binoculars or a telescope though, your eyes are actually the best tool available for spotting these amazing displays.
So just grab a hot cocoa and keep your eyes on the sky – and eventually your patience will be rewarded.
Leonids – November 17/18
The Leonids shower has a cyclic peak year every 33 years, when hundreds of meteors can be seen each hour.
The last of these peaks was in 2001, so we still have a few years to go before the next peak, but that doesn’t mean we don’t still get a bit of a show.
This year, the shower peaks on the night of November 17, but meteors associated with this shower can often be seen for several days before and after.
The Leonids are usually a modest shower, with typical rates of about 10 to 15 meteors per hour at the peak, in the darkness before dawn.
This shower has been known to produce meteor storms, but no Leonid storm is expected this year.
Geminids – December 14/15
The stunning Geminids meteor shower takes place in December.
Considered by many to be the best meteor shower in the night sky, the Geminids can produce up to 60 multi-coloured meteors per hour at their peak.
The Geminid shower was first noted in the 1860s and astronomers believe it is intensifying with each year that passes.
Peaking during mid-December each year, they are now considered to be one of the best and most reliable annual meteor showers. Some reports have recorded between 120 and 160 meteors per hour during optimal conditions.
Created by debris from the 3200 Paethon asteroid that passes close to the sun during its orbit, the meteors travel up to 22 miles per second and burn up at around 24 miles above the Earth.
The Geminids are bright and fast meteors, and one of the few meteor showers that can be seen from both the northern and southern hemispheres.
They are also able to reach deeper and burn lower in Earth’s atmosphere than many other meteor storms, creating beautiful long arcs which last a second or two.
Another special feature of the Geminids is the colour of the meteors it produces, which in addition to glowing white also can appear yellow, blue, red and green.
Ursids – December 22/23
The Ursids is generally classed as low-key meteor shower, producing a handful of meteors or shooting stars every hour with a peak around the December solstice.
At its peak, in a dark sky, this shower offers around five to 10 meteors per hour during the predawn hours, but it’s been known to have good years, with 100 meteors per hour seen, and that’s why people watch for it.
In 1945 and 1986, for instance, 50 per hour were observed — but experts say that such events are rare.
In 2019, “we’re not expecting an outburst,” NASA meteor expert Bill Cooke told Space.com. “But the Ursids have surprised us before.”
Scotland’s top dark sky spots
Spey Valley, Cairngorms National Park
Home to very dark skies in autumn and winter, as well as many distilleries for a warming wee dram.
Loch Trool, Galloway Forest Park
Galloway Forest Park is a huge natural wonderland with miles of forested glens, lochs and the highest hills in southern Scotland.
Here, there are few buildings and even less light pollution. The International Dark Sky Association chose it to be the very first national park in the UK to be honoured with Dark Sky Park status.
Moffat – a Dark Sky Town
Moffat in Dumfries and Galloway takes the title of Europe’s first Dark Sky Town, having adopted special street lighting to keep light pollution to a minimum in order to preserve the wondrous starry skies.
North West Sutherland, between Kylesku and Inchnadamph
Arguably the darkest sky location in the UK and possibly Europe, ideal for taking in the wonder of the dark skies above.
Skye, Inner Hebrides
Nine locations on Skye have been officially named Dark Discovery Sites after they were judged to be perfect spots for stargazing.
How can I capture it on camera?
- Head out of the city to a dark site location
- It is best to use a wide-angle lens if you have one
- Meteors shoot across very fast so you might want to try a wide aperture. A 16-mm f/2 lens will capture more.
- Set the camera and lens to manual focus. Focus on the brightest star or planet in the sky and then make sure your camera won’t be accidentally bumped. A tripod is a must.
- ISO will vary, but 1600 tends to work well for many shots.
- Shoot a custom white balance on the sky itself to remove light pollution.
- Turn off Long-Exposure Noise Reduction (LENR) if your camera has this setting.
- Use the self timer to open the shutter. If you have a remote release you can skip this step.
If you do manage to capture a meteor shower on camera we’d love to see your photographs! Please send them in to the STV Weather desk by emailing [email protected].