Stargazers can look forward to catching the Draconid meteor shower on Wednesday night, when around 5 meteors are expected to light up the night sky every hour.
On any given night of stargazing, you can expect to see a couple of meteors every hour. Meteors, commonly known as ‘shooting stars’, are flashes of light caused by pieces of dust or rock burning up as they pass through the Earth’s atmosphere. Incredibly, these are usually the size of a grain of sand, but they travel so fast that they create a trail that glows as brightly as the stars.
This year, the annual Draconid meteor shower takes place from 6-10 October, with activity peaking on 7-8 October. This celestial display is associated with the comet 21P/Giacobini-Zinner, which takes about 6.6 years to orbit the Sun.
Unlike with many meteor showers, you don’t need to stay up into the early hours to enjoy the spectacle. Draconid activity will be taking place in the evening after nightfall, when around five meteors will be visible every hour. Occasionally, it puts on an incredible show, with hundreds of meteors being spotted.
Read more about stargazing:
- 9 stargazing tips to get you watching the stars from home
- A beginner’s guide to stargazing, no telescope required
- How do I find the North Star?
Meteor showers are named after their radiant, that is, where they appear to originate from in the sky. The Draconid meteor shower, for example, appears to come from the Draco constellation in the far northern sky.
To look for meteors, let your eyes adjust to the dark, then look directly up. Although the meteors originate in Draco, it’s not important to specifically find that constellation – they can travel across the whole sky. So make sure you can see as much sky as possible, without obstruction from buildings or trees, to give yourself the best chance.
Most importantly, make sure that you’re comfortable, by taking a chair (a reclining one is best), a blanket, and maybe even a bottle of wine with you.
Don’t worry if you miss out this time, the Orionid meteor shower will be taking place 20-21 October.
Reader Q&A: How do we predict meteor shower intensity?
Asked by: Simon Foster, Burnley
Most ‘predictions’ of the rate of meteors per hour during meteor showers are based on both theory and observation. Essentially, a computer model is built containing the trajectories of every known comet – since it is the debris from comets that forms the ‘stream’ of particles we see during a meteor shower.
This model contains information on the rate that these comets release material, along with the sizes, directions and velocities at which they are released, as well as the gravitational forces that determine their subsequent trajectories through space. The trajectory of the Earth and the conditions of the Earth’s atmosphere are also inputted into the computer model.
By watching how Earth moves through the meteor stream it is possible to estimate the likely number of meteors that will be visible during a given shower for a given location.
But different astronomers use different models. Plus, these models are partly based on difficult measurements of the meteoric particles in the Solar System, so their predictions are often only approximate.
But generally, they can be used to reliably predict when a meteor shower is likely to be more or less intense than the average.
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