October 4, 2011

Have you ever heard of the October Draconids?

“Remember, meteor showers are like fishing. You go, you enjoy nature … and sometimes you catch something.”

The October Draconids are a meteor shower that happens well…in October. This year,  some astronomers are calling for a Draconid meteor shower to burst into storm,  with rates of 1,000 meteors per hour.

The best nights for viewing are expected to be October 8–10. The Draconids are best viewed after sunset in an area with a clear dark sky. This October 8 between 16h and 22h Universal Time, the shower is expected to be stronger than normal, and could reach up to 1 to 10 meteors per minute for a brief period of time; besides being a full moon which makes it harder for viewing, North America will be experiencing daytime when the peak is expected to happen but meteors may be visible in many locations nevertheless from the 7th through the 9th.

For viewing meteors, it is advised to get away from bright lights as much as possible during the night.

Credit: Alex Tudorica

Most meteor showers are named for the constellation from which the meteors radiate on the sky dome. The Draconids, however, are sometimes also called the Giacobinids, to honor the man who first sighted the comet that spawned this meteor shower in 1900. 21P Giacobini-Zinner   is a periodic comet, which returns every 6 years and 4 months. Tracking this comet, and noting this October meteor shower, helped astronomers figure out how to predict meteor showers in 1915. The great Draconid/Giacobinid meteor storms occurred in 1933 and 1946. The comet returned in 1998 as well, and the Draconids picked up that year, but only to a rate of about 100 per hour. There might be a meteor storm this year, in 2011. Perhaps the rates could go up to hundreds of meteors per hour in North America. Or we might see only a handful of meteors per hour. The Draconids might produce a spurt of 1,000 meteors per hour for a brief window of time.

The radiant point for the Draconid meteor shower almost coincides with the head of the constellation Draco the Dragon in the northern sky. That’s why the Draconids are best viewed from the northern hemisphere. The Draconid shower is a real oddity, in that the radiant point stands highest in the sky as darkness falls. Unlike many meteor showers, the Draconids are more likely to fly in the evening hours than in the morning hours after midnight. It is predicted that this year the dragon awakens!

Lie down with your feet pointing northward!


*To watch meteors, you need a dark sky.

*Meteor showers occur over a range of dates, because they stem from Earth’s own movement through space. As we orbit the sun, we cross “meteor streams.” These streams of icy particles in space come from comets moving in orbit around the sun. Comets are fragile icy bodies that litter their orbits with debris. When this cometary debris enters our atmosphere, it vaporizes due to friction with the air. If moonlight or city lights don’t obscure the view, we on Earth see the falling, vaporizing particles as meteors.

*You can comfortably watch meteors from many places, assuming you have a dark sky: your back yard or deck, the hood of your car, the side of a road. If you want to bring along equipment to make yourself more comfortable, consider a blanket or reclining lawn chair, a thermos with a hot drink, binoculars for gazing along the pathway of the summer Milky Way. Be sure to dress warmly enough. Even the summer nights can be chilly, especially in the hours before dawn when the most meteors should be flying.

* A full moon is not the best of companies during a meteor shower, but it is still a beautiful full moon 🙂



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