Tonight, Draco will breathe a little fire in the sky. It’s time again for the Draconids, the meteor shower that appears to spew from the dragon-shaped constellation. Meteors should be visible starting at nightfall in the northern latitudes on Monday and Tuesday night – but only if you manage to get away from the lights of a city.
The Draconids’ real origin point is the comet 21P/Giacobini-Zinner. The comet is partially named after the French astronomer Michel Giacobini, who first discovered the comet in 1900; in his honor, the meteor shower is sometimes referred to as the Giacobinids. The comet makes one circuit of its orbit – which takes it out past Jupiter -- every 6.6 years. When Earth passes through the material left in its wake, the debris falls through our atmosphere as burning meteors.
This year’s Draconid shower probably won’t be a dazzling display. In 2011, our planet hit a particularly dense patch of the comet’s trail, kicking up as many as 600 meteors per hour. But the average shower is far more placid – usually about 10 or so an hour, according to Space.com. Luckily, we are experiencing a tiny crescent moon at present, so the moonlight won’t overwhelm any meteors that do turn up.
Decades ago, the Draconids could put on quite the display. On October 9, 1933, one observer watching in Ireland reported that “meteors were falling as thickly as the flakes of snow in a snow storm,” according to the journal Popular Astronomy.
The Draconids are odd ducks among meteor showers, which usually peak just before dawn. But the radiant point of the shower, located near Draco’s head and the stars Eltanin and Rastaban, is highest in our sky just after dusk this time of year. If you’re in the Southern Hemisphere, you could see a few Draconids early in the evening, but only if you live fairly close to the equator, according to EarthSky.
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If you miss the dragon’s breath this week, there’s another meteor shower headed our way in October that should be even more spectacular. The Orionids, which are spawned by the debris from Halley’s comet, will be at peak activity between October 20 and 21. The Orionids, which appear to radiate just north of the star Betelgeuse in the constellation Orion, are incredibly fast-moving meteors, traveling at about 148,000 miles per hour as they hit our atmosphere.
“Fast meteors can leave glowing ‘trains’ (incandescent bits of debris in the wake of the meteor) that last for several seconds to minutes,” says NASA. “Fast meteors can also sometimes become fireballs: Look for prolonged explosions of light when viewing the Orionid meteor shower.”