Skywatchers have a chance to see some “shooting stars” this week with the annual Draconid meteor shower. The meteor display, which peaks overnight on Thursday and Friday (Oct. 8 and 9), is caused by the remains of Comet 21P/Giacobini-Zinner raining down on Earth.
Weather permitting, the Draconid meteor shower can be seen radiating out from the constellation Draco (the Dragon) near the triangle formed by the stars Deneb, Altair, and Vega. It is estimated by NASA that, on average, about 10 to 20 meteors can be glimpsed per hour during the Draconids.
This is also the time when the moon is in a faint crescent phase, allowing for a darker view of the sky.
While these meteors appear to be coming from the constellation Draco, they are actually remnants of debris shed by Comet 21P/Giacobini-Zinner. The Draconid meteors are caused when Earth collides with bits of debris shed by periodic comet 21P/Giacobini-Zinner (and that’s why this shower used to be called the Giacobinids). The comet has a 6½-year-long orbit that periodically carries it near Jupiter. Ordinarily, it’s expected that the planet’s powerful gravity to scatter anything in its vicinity into varying and unpredictable orbits; however, the stream of particles, ejected in 1900, is still largely intact. The meteors appear to travel from a point near the head of Draco the Dragon, a constellation visible all year for most people with a view of the northern sky.
It’s easy to find the constellation of Draco the dragon because its tail appears to trail between the big and little dippers (Ursa Major and Ursa Minor).
You don’t need any special equipment to view this meteor shower. All you have to do is take out your favorite lawn chair, bundle up against the cold if you are in chillier parts of the United States, Europe or Canada, and sit outside watching the sky.
You do need to pick a viewing spot well away from city lights, which can reduce the number of meteors visible during the night. Binoculars or telescopes are not much help because meteors travel unpredictably and typically only last a couple of seconds.
While a meteor looks spectacular in the sky, a shower like the Draconids does not have particles big enough to make it all the way down to Earth. These particles burn up high in the atmosphere and are generally slow moving, distinguishing them from other random meteors you may see throughout the evening.
Here is a video clip of the Draco constellation for the Draconids.