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Legendary Draconid meteors best after sunset October 8

Draconid meteor in 2011.  Copyright: Frank Martin Ingilæ. Used with permission.

Tonight for October 8, 2015

The constellation Draco the Dragon will be spitting out meteors, also known as shooting stars. The Draconid shower is predicted to produce the greatest number of meteors on the night of October 8. Watch for them first thing at nightfall. Fortunately, the waning crescent moon won’t interfere with this year’s Draconid meteor display. This shower is best viewed in the evening, but the moon won’t rise until the wee hours of the morning on October 9.

As seen from North America, the moon shines below Venus on October 9. But in Australia, you have a chance to see the moon occult - cover over - Venus in the morning hours on this date (October 9). Click here for more information. The green line depicts the ecliptic - the pathway of the moon and planets.

As seen from North America, the moon shines below Venus on October 9. But in Australia, you have a chance to see the moon occult – cover over – Venus in the morning hours on this date (October 9). Click here for more information. The green line depicts the ecliptic – the pathway of the moon and planets.

We provide a sky chart of the moon and planets in the morning sky at the right. Although Australia will miss out on the Draconid meteors, they have a chance to watch the lunar occultation of Venus on the morning of October 9. Click here for details.

If you live at middle and far northern latitudes anywhere around the globe, this shower is well worth a try. 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. Spend an hour or more under a dark and open sky, lying down and with your feet pointing northward. Oftentimes, this hard-to-predict shower doesn’t offer much more than a handful of languid meteors per hour. But watch out if the Dragon awakes!

Once again, watch at nightfall and early evening because that’s when the radiant point for the Draconid shower is highest in the nighttime sky. We emphasize it, because most meteor showers are best after midnight … but not this one.

Radiant point of Draconid meteor shower, in the Head of the constellation Draco the Dragon, near the Dragon’s Eyes: the stars Rastaban and Eltanin. The radiant for the Draconids is highest up at nightfall in early October.

Find the radiant point for the Draconid meteor shower

The Draconid meteor shower produced awesome meteor displays in 1933 and 1946, with thousands of meteors per hour seen in those years. Four years ago – in October 2011 – people around the globe saw an elevated number of Draconid meteors, despite a bright moon that night. European observers saw over 600 meteors per hour in 2011.

As far as we know, nobody is calling for the Draconid meteor shower to burst into storm in 2015. But you never know for sure with the Draconids, so it’s worth watching out for on the moonless evening of October 8. Just keep in mind that meteor showers are notorious for defying predictions, either surpassing or falling shy of expectation. The only way to know for sure is to try to watch the shower.

Draconid meteor in 2011. Click here to expand image. Copyright: Frank Martin Ingilæ. Used with permission.

Most meteor showers are named for the constellation from which the meteors radiate on the sky’s dome. The Draconids, however, are sometimes also called the Giacobinids, to honor the man who first sighted the comet that spawned this meteor shower.

Michel Giacobini discovered this comet on December 20, 1900. Another sighting in 1913 added the name Zinner to that of the comet, which thus became 21P Giacobini-Zinner. It 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. Then in 2011, observers in Europe saw over 600 Draconid meteors per hour.

Draconid meteor seen from Italy on October 8, 2011 near the bright star Vega in the constellation Lyra. Image via Vittorio Poli.

Why was the meteor shower so good in 2011? And why is it good in some years but not in others? Comet Giacobini-Zinner was at perihelion – closest to the sun – in 2011. Meteors are debris from comets, so when a parent comet is nearby, a good meteor shower is possible.

Perhaps Draconid meteor rates will go up this year. Or we might see only a handful of meteors per hour. Under normal conditions, when astronomers speak of a meteor shower peaking, it is similar to a weather forecaster saying, “The heaviest rain/snow is predicted for such-and-such hour.” In other words, the prediction might not be precise, since nature is always unpredictable to a degree. But, generally speaking, the rate of meteors falling will be higher during the peak of a meteor shower than on any other night.

For tips on viewing meteor showers read this EarthSky article.

For a taste of history related to this shower, go to the Astronomy Abstract Service from the Smithsonian and NASA and find a 1934 article called “The Meteors from Giacobini’s Comet” by C.C. Wylie. It is an account of the famed meteor storm of 1933.

Bottom line: In 2015, the Draconid meteor shower – also called the Giacobinids – peak on the night of October 8. The night of October 9 might feature meteors, too. The radiant is highest in the evening hours, so no need to wait until after midnight. Find a dark, country sky and as much open sky as possible. Lie down on a reclining chair and look upward, starting at nightfall. How many Draconid meteors can you count in the moon-free skies these next few evenings? No one expects a Draconid storm this year, but it’s fun to wait and see.