Stargazers, get your telescopes at the ready. Later this week, the annual Draconids meteor shower will be visible across the night sky. The event will last from October 6-10 but for peak viewing, put October 8 in the diary. This is when the shower is expected to be at its brightest.
The Draconids are a group of (relatively) slow-moving meteors that follow on the tail of the Jupiter-family comet 21P/Giacobini-Zinner. They move at 64,000 kilometers (40,000 miles) an hour, which seems incredibly fast but is actually fairly slow in meteor-terms. (Some travel speeds of 257,000 kilometers (159,600 miles) per hour, which is 45 kilometers or 28 miles every single second.) This means the meteors are faint and frequently burn out before they have the chance to reach the Earth’s atmosphere. Only the very largest generate enough heat to make them visible to the human eye.
The meteors get their name from the constellation Draco, Latin for “dragon”, where they appear to originate from. The location of this constellation (far north) means the best and easiest spots to watch them from are in the Northern Hemisphere in places like Canada, the US, and various countries in Europe and Northern Asia. Though they can also be observed from the Southern Hemisphere provided you are not too far from the equator.
The Draconids are also a somewhat young shower, only observed for the first time less than a century ago. Most displays tend to produce five or so meteors an hour but in 1933 and 1946, the storms were especially spectacular and spectators reported seeing up to several thousand meteors per hour. Unfortunately, we shouldn’t expect a repeat of 1933 or 1946 in 2018 – astronomers predict storms of roughly 10 or so meteors an hour.
The good news is that this year, they will coincide with a new Moon so the sky will be extra dark and ripe for stargazing. What’s more, on September 10, 2018, the 21P/Giacobini-Zinner passed the point closest to the Sun in its entire orbit (the perihelion), which may mean more spectacular meteor showers than usual. To catch them in the best light, watch in the early evening.
The Draconids won’t be the only meteors lighting up the sky this October. The ongoing Orionids meteor shower (September 23 to November 27) is expected to peak later this month on October 21, generating up to 20 meteors every hour.