Early Treat or Fizzling Trick?

Thursday’s new moon provides an unobscured backdrop for this year’s Draconid meteor shower, which peaks at week’s end. Not some early Halloween reference to Dracula, this annual meteor shower is named for the constellation Draco the dragon, from which the meteors seem to emanate. It’s tricky to predict the rate of the Draconids each year, but there is always the potential for some awesome stellar treats. 

Like most meteor showers, the Draconids occur as earth passes through the dust-strewn trail of a comet, in this case comet 21P Giacobini-Zinner. (The only exception are the Geminids, the offspring of an asteroid.)  Some comets, like Swift-Tuttle, which spawns the Perseids, have been circling the sun for millennia, leaving countless bands of stellar debris trailing behind. Not so with 21P Giacobini-Zinner, which was only discovered in 1900. But while the comet is young — or at least a newcomer to our solar system —  and hasn’t laid down many tracks, it orbits the sun in only six and a half years, whereas Swift-Tuttle takes 120.

While likely to produce only a dozen or so meteors each hour, every so often, the dragon awakens. Back in 1933 and 1946, the Draconids produced two of the most intense meteor storms ever witnessed, unleashing thousands of meteors an hour. But aside from a burst of 100 meteors an hour in 1998, it’s been a light sprinkle at best. But you never know. 

The dragon is high overhead in the north, at sunset, and from then until midnight the Draconids are at their best. 

Darkness reveals Jupiter blazing in the east, and by midnight the planet is high in the south. A couple degrees east of Jupiter is Uranus, but at magnitude 5.7, it’s at the edge of what the unaided eye can see, so you’re best armed with binoculars or a small telescope.