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This weekend, watch for the Draconids!

Image at top: Draconid meteor seen in 2011 by Frank Martin Ingilæ. Used with permission.

Tonight – October 7, 2017 – the fiery mouth of 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 evening – not after midnight – on October 7 or 8. This shower favors the Northern Hemisphere. Just be forewarned. Even at northerly latitudes, the Draconids are typically a very modest shower, perhaps offering only a handful of slow-moving meteors per hour. But watch out if the Dragon awakes!

The Draconid meteor shower produced awesome meteor displays in 1933 and 1946, with thousands of meteors per hour seen in those years. Six 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 2017. But you never know for sure with the Draconids, so it’s worth watching out for on the evenings of October 7 and 8. Just know 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 seen from Italy in October 2011 near the bright star Vega in the constellation Lyra. Image via Vittorio Poli.

Luckily, watching the shower is lots of fun, even if you see only a few meteors. Just plan to spend an hour or more under a dark and open sky, lying down and with your feet pointing northward.

Most meteor showers are best after midnight, but this shower is different, best viewed in the evening hours. Watch for the Draconid meteors first thing at nightfall – or before the bright waning gibbous moon rises into your sky. Unfortunately, the recent full Harvest Moon on October 5 means the moon will come up at early evening tonight for Northern Hemisphere locations. Click here, remembering to check the moonrise and moonset box, to find out when the moon will rise into your sky.

Can you see the Draconids in the Southern Hemisphere? Click here for all you need to know about this shower.

Draconid meteor shower radiant point.

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.

Find the radiant point for the Draconid meteor shower

Comet 21P/Giacobini-Zinner on November 11, 1997, via Wikimedia Commons. Icy debris left behind by this comet creates the Draconid meteor shower.

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.

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’s a fascinating account of the famed meteor storm of 1933.

Six-shot composite image of Draconid meteor shower – October 7, 2016 – by Steen Oervad of Denmark.

Now let’s consider the great Draconid/Giacobinid meteor storms of 1933 and 1946, and that of 2011, when observers in Europe saw over 600 Draconid meteors per hour. Why was the meteor shower so good in 2011? Why do we see more meteors in some years than in others?

The answer is that 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.

It doesn’t always happen, though. The comet returned in 1998, and the Draconids did pick up that year, but only to a rate of about 100 per hour.

So there you have it. Meteor showers are part of nature and not entirely predictable. Under normal conditions, when astronomers speak of a meteor shower peaking, it’s similar to a weather forecaster saying:

The heaviest rain/snow is predicted for 9 p.m.

That prediction isn’t a certainty. It’s more like an educated guess, and it might not come to pass. Or it might happen for you, but not for people across town. It’s a good analogy to the 2011 Draconids, which were best seen over Europe but less good, for example, over North America.

View larger. | Beautiful panorama from Sean Parker Photography. It shows the bright star Vega, and, nearby, the head of Draco the Dragon, radiant point of the Draconid meteor shower. Photo is from the 2013 shower, taken at Saguaro National Park in Arizona.

Bottom line: In 2017, the Draconid meteor shower – also called the Giacobinids – will probably be at its best on the evening of October 7 or 8. No need to wait until after midnight; the radiant is highest in the evening hours. No one expects a Draconid storm this year, but it’s fun to watch and see. Clouded out for the Draconids? Didn’t see a thing? No worries. Meteor season ahead! Check out EarthSky’s 2017 meteor guide.

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Deborah Byrd