As we draw nearer to the end of the year the night skies light up with activity, with a succession of spectacular meteor showers to keep astronomers entertained.
October brings us the Draconids, a shower which has – in the past – delivered thousands of meteors an hour.
Those spikes in activity were back in 1933 and 1946, among the most impressive meteor storms of the 20th century.
This year’s shower is expected to peak on the evenings of 7 and 8 October, and while there’s no outburst predicted, there’s no way to accurately predict when one might occur.
The fire breathing dragons
The Draconids are so called because they appear to originate from the constellation Draco, the dragon that is easily imagined to be spitting fire during the shower. As with other meteor showers, the ‘shooting stars’ are caused when fragments of comet dust burn up upon entering the Earth’s atmosphere.
The comet associated with the Draconids is the snappily named 21P/Giacobini–Zinner, and though its debris can be no bigger than a grain of sand, there will still be the impressive, relatively slow-moving meteors passing across the sky.
How to view the Draconid shower
This year’s viewing possibilities will be hampered by a bright waning gibbous moon, but it should still be worth heading outside, and those in rural areas will benefit from darker skies.
Unlike other showers, which are best viewed in the early hours of the morning, the Draconids are best seen in the evening, shortly after nightfall. It can take up to 20 minutes for your eyes to adjust properly to the darkness, so get comfortable under the stars on a reclining lawn chair.
Pointing your feet in a general north or northwest direction and looking upward will put you in the best position to see the shower, but meteors will be visible in all parts of the sky.
Why some years are more active than others
It’s the meteor shower’s history that singles it out as an interesting one – the 1933 and 1946 shower brought thousands of meteors per hour to skies. These rare activity bursts occur when the Earth travels through a denser part of the debris stream, and the most recent outburst was in 2012, when radar observations detected up to 1,000 meteors per hour.
This may have been caused by a trail of dust and debris left behind by the comet as far back as 1959.
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