This long weekend skywatchers get to see the annual peak of the Draconid meteor shower. While not the most prolific cosmic fireworks show it reliably puts on a nice display and this year with the moon out of the way – sky conditions are set to be ideal.
Like other meteor showers the Draconids get their name from the constellation they appear to radiate out from in the sky – in this case Draco, the dragon – which appears nearly overhead around local midnight throughout the northern hemisphere. The constellation is the 8th largest in the entire sky and is so large that it wraps itself around the North Star, Polaris. Famous neigbouring constellations include Ursa Minor and Ursa Major – the small and great bears of mythology.
The flurry of meteors we see over the next few nights occur when Earth slams into a stream of sand grain sized particles spread out along the orbit of its parent comet , which in this case is 21P/Giacobini-Zinner, and these cometary debris burn up in our upper atmosphere in a streak of light.
This year the peak rate of shooting stars are expected to occur around 10 pm eastern daylight time on October 7th so all of North America will get to see the beginning of peak of the shower, while observers in Europe and Asia might have a better chance of observing the later portion of the show. And with the moon in waning gibbous phase the best times will have the skies completely moonless and as dark as possible – really the best you can hope for in terms of viewing even the fainter shooting stars.
This year observers can expect to see anywhere from 10 to 20 meteors per hour late nights on both October 7 and 8 however its worth keeping your eyes on the heavens for possible surprises. Historically Draconids have been known to peak to hundreds or even thousands of meteors per hour.
While unlikely and rare- these massive upticks in meteor numbers can occur when Earth slams into an uncharted but particularly dense part of the meteor stream left behind by the parent comet. Just last year skywatchers in Europe counted upwards of 600 meteors per hour during peak time!
Best way to enjoy the meteor shower is the find a dark location away from the light pollution of cities, lay back on a reclining chair or blanket and just watch the overhead sky with nothing more than your eyes. Don’t forget it can get chilly this time of the year so bundle up with some hot chocolate by your side – and you’re all set to make plenty of wishes!
Andrew Fazekas, aka The Night Sky Guy, is a science writer, broadcaster, and lecturer who loves to share his passion for the wonders of the universe through all media. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic News and is the national cosmic correspondent for Canada’s Weather Network TV channel, space columnist for CBC Radio network, and a consultant for the Canadian Space Agency. As a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Andrew has been observing the heavens from Montreal for over a quarter century and has never met a clear night sky he didn’t like.