A fiery dragon will rise just after sunset on the evenings of October 7 and 8, and it will be spewing meteors.
Draco the dragon is the constellation from which the Draconid meteor shower emanates, at least according to our vantage point from the ground. The shower tends to produce sporadic, slow-moving meteors, making it one of the year’s less spectacular ones, but when it does decide to put on a show, it makes up for all the duds.
“Oftentimes, this hard-to-predict shower doesn’t offer much more than a handful of languid meteors per hour,” reports EarthSky.org. “But watch out if the Dragon awakes!”
If Draco is feeling festive—that is, if the debris from the comet that spawns this shower, the comet 21P Giacobini-Zinner (named after its discoverers), is especially thick around Mother Earth—then the sky could erupt with thousands of meteors per hour, EarthSky.org says. This happened in both 1933 and 1946, and on a smaller scale with the October 2011 shower, which peaked at 660 meteors per hour, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The odds are even as to whether tonight, the peak—and tomorrow, October 8, Day 2 of Mother Earth’s passage through the thickest part of the cometary debris trail—will give us some shooting stars to wish upon or not. Part of the reason for the 2011 shower’s abundance was comet Giacobini-Zinner’s proximity to the sun. It was at the closest approach of its 6.5-year orbit in 2011, putting the comet in the inner solar system, relatively close to Earth. Thus the show may or may not be replicated this year.
A moonless night enhances the viewing, if viewing is to be had. So does the fact that one does not have to rise before dawn. Just finish dinner, brew some hot chocolate, and find a dark spot. Gazing directly at the dragon is not required. The shooting stars will dance all over the sky.
If you wait much longer than nightfall, you might miss it.
“Unlike many major showers, the radiant for the Draconids is highest up at nightfall, so it’s best to watch for these meteors as soon as darkness falls, not in the wee hours before dawn,” advises EarthSky.org. “Spend an hour or more under a dark and open sky, lying down and with your feet pointing northward.”