Autumn is, quite rightly, a good time to look for shooting stars. Go outside on any clear night and stargaze for an hour and you’re bound to see at least one meteor flashing across the night sky.
In one important way that is slightly interrupted this weekend by the rising of the Full Moon—the Hunter’s Moon—which will be best seen at dusk on both Sunday, October 9 and Monday, October 10, 2022 as it rises in the east.
Its brightness will make virtual shooting stars harder to see than in a dark, moonless sky. However, this slight drawback is somewhat offset by the climax of the Draconid meteor shower.
Appearing to originate in an area of the night sky occupied by the constellation Draco “the Dragon,” Draconids can number about 20 an hour during their peak, which this year will peak on Friday, October 8, 2022 according to the American Meteor Society.
The Moon won’t help you spot them, of course, but Draconids are rare as they are just as easy to see just after dark as at any other time. This is in contrast to most meteor showers, which are best seen after midnight, when the apparent source constellation (that is, the region of Earth’s atmosphere that the meteors hit) is overhead.
Draco is a huge snake-shaped constellation between Ursa Major and Ursa Minor in the northern sky. It is a circular constellation that never sets. That means it’s visible all night because—like the Big Dipper—it appears to revolve around Polaris, the “North Star,” to which Earth’s north axis points. Consequently, you can see the Draconids in the north after nightfall on Friday and throughout the night.
All you need to do is generally northwest (keep your back to the bright Moon and Jupiter in the east) and, with a bit of luck, you’ll spot a relatively slow-moving Draconid. Although they can appear anywhere in the night sky as streaks of fast-moving lights, if you trace these streaks back, you’ll reach the northern sky.
This also means that Draconids can only ever be seen in the northern hemisphere.
Comets leave behind a trail of debris and dust called meteoroids as they travel through space, particularly as they approach the Sun. When a comet’s orbit intersects Earth’s own orbital path around the Sun, it leaves behind a stream of meteors that Earth will inevitably have to traverse once a year.
The source of the Draconids is a comet called 21P/Giacobini-Zinner, which in 1985 was the first comet visited by a spacecraft, the International Cometary Explorer (ICE) satellite. It was last in the inner Solar System in 2018 and will visit again in 2025, so the Draconids are a regularly renewed meteor shower.
I wish you clear skies and open eyes.