Astronomy Essentials

Draconid meteor shower 2023: All you need to know

Draconid meteor shower: Star chart with set of radial arrows at one end of constellation Draco.
Watch for the short-lived Draconid meteor shower at nightfall and early evening on October 8, 2023. You can watch through the night with the expected peak in the early morning of October 9. This chart faces northward at nightfall in October. The Big Dipper sits low in the northwest. From the southern U.S. and comparable latitudes, in October, obstructions on your northern horizon might hide the Big Dipper from view. From farther south – say, the Southern Hemisphere – you won’t see the Dipper at all in the evening at this time of the year. However, if you can spot it low in the sky, use the Big Dipper to star-hop to the star Polaris. Polaris marks the end star in the handle of the Little Dipper. Got all these stars? Then you should also be able to spot Eltanin and Rastaban, marking the Draconids’ radiant point, high in the northwest sky at nightfall in early October. Draconid meteors radiate from near these stars, which are known as the Dragon’s Eyes.

The Draconid shower – also called the Giacobinids – is a real oddity, in that its radiant point stands highest in the sky as darkness falls. That’s why you’ll see more Draconids in the evening hours than in the morning hours after midnight.

Predicted peak: is predicted* for October 9, 2023, at 7 UTC.
When to watch: The best time to watch the Draconids in 2023 is the evening of October 8 through the wee hours of the morning on October 9. The waning crescent moon (22% illuminated) will not interfere with most Draconid meteors.
Overall duration of shower: October 8 through 9.
Radiant: Highest in the sky in the evening hours. See chart above.
Nearest moon phase: Last quarter moon is 13:48 UTC on October 6. In 2023, a waning crescent moon will be out on the mornings of October 8 and 9.
Expected meteors at peak, under ideal conditions: Under a dark sky with no moon, you might catch 10 Draconid meteors per hour.
Note: The Draconid shower is a real oddity, in that the radiant point stands highest in the sky as darkness falls. That means that, unlike many meteor showers, more Draconids are likely to fly in the evening hours than in the morning hours after midnight. This shower is usually a sleeper, producing only a handful of languid meteors per hour in most years. But watch out if the Dragon awakes! In rare instances, fiery Draco has been known to spew forth many hundreds of meteors in a single hour. That possibility keeps many skywatchers outside – even in moonlight – during this shower.

Be sure to watch in a dark sky

Report a fireball (very bright meteor) to the American Meteor Society: it’s fun and easy!

The Draconids’ parent comet

From the late, great Don Machholz (1952-2022), who discovered 12 comets …

The Draconids meteor shower’s parent comet, the object responsible for the dust we see burning up in our atmosphere, is the small periodic comet 21P/Giacobini-Zinner. Michel Giacobini visually discovered this comet on December 20, 1900, in the evening sky, from the Nice Observatory in France. The comet was faint and in the southern part of the constellation Aquarius. Giacobini was using a 46-centimeter (18-inch diameter lens) refractor telescope, the largest telescope for comet hunting at the time. Though the comet is periodic – with a 6.6-year orbit around the sun – observers missed it at its next return. Then, on October 23, 1913, Ernst Zinner of Germany found the comet while looking at variable stars. This was his only comet discovery.

Comet 21P/Giacobini-Zinner comes about as close to the sun as does Earth. Then it ventures back just past the orbit of Jupiter before returning 6.6 years later. The International Cometary Explorer visited it in September 1985, making it the first comet to be visited by a space probe.

Draconid meteor storms

The debris from the comet is not scattered uniformly around its orbit. Much of it is still bunched near the comet. Therefore, when the comet comes back into our neighborhood, it can produce a spectacular meteor shower, known as a meteor storm: hundreds or even thousands of meteors per hour. This happened in 1933 and 1946, with several thousand meteors an hour. In the years 1985, 1998 and 2018, it produced increased counts but not meteor storms. European observers saw over 600 meteors per hour in 2011.

The last perihelion of the comet was September 10, 2018. On that same night, Comet 21P/Giacobini-Zinner came closer to Earth than it had in 72 years. Consequently, the Draconids had an outburst in 2018. We posted best pics of the comet as it swept safely past.

Because this comet has an orbital period of nearly seven years, the next perihelion won’t come until 2025. So we’re not expecting an outburst this year. But, then, no one really knows for sure.

Star chart of Summer Triangle with arrow pointing to dragon's eyes stars.
Those at southerly latitudes will have a tough time finding the Big Dipper at this time of the year. Instead, star-hop from the Summer Triangle to locate Eltanin and Rastaban, near the Draconids’ radiant point. At nightfall in October, look overhead for the Summer Triangle. Draw an imaginary line from Altair through Vega in the Summer Triangle. That line will point to Eltanin and Rastaban.

Where is the radiant point?

The radiant point for the Draconid meteor shower is near the stars Eltanin and Rastaban, in the head of the constellation Draco the Dragon in the northern sky. Its far-north location is why the Draconids are best viewed from the Northern Hemisphere. See the two charts above.

The Draconids are best in the evening, instead of before dawn, because the winged Dragon, the shower’s radiant point, flies highest in the October sky at nightfall. As night passes – no matter where you are on Earth – the radiant point sinks lower in your sky.

You don’t have to locate Draco the Dragon to watch the Draconids. These meteors fly every which way through the starry sky. But finding Draco is fun and relatively easy. The two charts above show you two easy ways to find it. You can star-hop from the Big Dipper. Or you can star-hop from the Summer Triangle.

Draconid meteor shower has a rich history

Astronomers in the early 20th century speculated that meteors and comets were related. So of course they tried to link various comets to the spectacular showers of meteors that sometimes rain down in Earth’s sky.

Comet 21P/Giacobini-Zinner was a particularly tempting object about which to make predictions. Remember, it returns every 6.6 years, and its closest point to the sun is about the same as Earth’s distance.

And Comet Giacobini-Zinner didn’t disappoint the astronomers.

The relationship between 21P/Giacobini-Zinner and its meteors – so studied and discussed among professional astronomers in the early 20th century – probably explains why the Draconid meteor shower sometimes goes by the name Giacobinids.

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

Draconid meteor shower from the Southern Hemisphere?

It’s possible. But if you’re so far south that the radiant point in the constellation Draco doesn’t rise above your horizon, or rises only briefly, you won’t catch many.

As seen from the Southern Hemisphere, you would have to be rather close to the equator in order to see Draco’s stars. Suppose you live in northern Australia – say Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia – which is at 12 degrees south latitude. If so, you’d be able to see the stars Rastaban and Eltanin very close to your north-northwestern horizon at nightfall in early October (given an unobstructed northern horizon). These stars would set fairly early in the evening. And so you wouldn’t see the head of Draco again until nightfall the following evening.

Why early evening? It’s because, no matter where you live worldwide, the head of Draco reaches upper transit (highest point in your sky) at around 5 p.m. local time in early October.

Thus, from latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere – even those as far north as northern Australia – you’d have a very narrow window for seeing meteors. If you’re in the Southern Hemisphere, and you’re really wanting to see a Draconid, try looking as soon as it gets really dark on October 7 and 8. And don’t expect much.

Draconid meteor photos from the EarthSky community

Star trails and meteor with light blue sky and water below.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | David Cox in Deep River Ontario, Canada, captured this photo of star trails and a Draconid meteor on October 8, 2021. He wrote: “Polaris time lapse captured a single, impressive Draconid meteor streak over the Ottawa River at Deep River Ontario, Canada, early in the evening of October 8, 2021.” Thank you, David!
Starry sky with faint Milky Way and short bright streaks.
Photo composite – 5 Draconid meteors in less than an hour – on October 7, 2017, from Stephanie Longo at Pike National Forest in Tarryall, Colorado. Thanks, Stephanie!

Bottom line: In 2023, the Draconid meteor shower – also called the Giacobinids – will probably produce the most meteors on the evening of October 8 and through the early hours of October 9.

EarthSky meteor shower guide for 2023

*Predicted peak times and dates for 2023 meteor showers are from the American Meteor Society Note that predictions for meteor shower peak times may vary. Back to top

Posted 
October 6, 2023
 in 
Astronomy Essentials

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