Expect streaks of light after sunset Tuesday as the Draconid meteor shower peaks

By Jamie Carter
October 08, 2019

The Big Dipper is an icon of the night sky that everybody has heard of, and most can recognize. For those of us in the northern hemisphere it’s currently hanging low in the northern sky as darkness begins. However, look above it on Tuesday evening and you might just spot streaks of light from a shooting star as the Draconid meteor shower peaks. What’s more, it’s the first of two meteor showers this month.

What is the Draconid meteor shower?

Happening from Oct. 6-10, but peaking before midnight on Tuesday, the Draconid meteor shower is an annual event. A meteor shower is simply when Earth’s regular annual orbital path around the sun takes it through a dense stream of dust and cosmic debris called meteoroids left in the solar system by a comet passing through. In the case of the Draconids, that’s comet 21P/Giacobini-Zinner, which was last in the solar system in 2018 and will return again in 2025.

What causes shooting stars?

A "shooting star" or “falling star" is really nothing of the sort. They occur when tiny meteoroids the size of a grain of sand slam into Earth’s atmosphere and burn-up, letting off photons of light as they do. They display a bright trail that can last anywhere from a millisecond to a second or so. About 20 per hour are expected for the Draconids, though outbursts of hundreds per hour occurred several times during the 20th century.

The night sky over Russky Island during the Draconid meteor shower.
Yuri Smityuk/TASS

Why are they called the Draconids?

This instance of shooting stars are named after the northern constellation of Draco, where the meteoroids appear to originate from in the night sky. Astronomers call this the “radiant point,” though the shooting stars themselves can appear anywhere in the night sky. Draco, latin for serpent or dragon, is a massive constellation that winds around and between Hercules, Cepheus, Ursa Minor (home to Polaris, the “North Star”) and Ursa Major (home of the Big Dipper).

How to find the ‘radiant point’ for the Draconids

Shooting stars from the Draconids appear to come from just below bright star Eltanin in Draco the dragon’s head. Find Alkaid, the star right at the end of the Big Dipper’s handle, which will be low on the northern horizon. Then look directly above it. If you’re in the southern hemisphere, you’re out of luck for the Draconids meteor shower.

When is the best time to look for shooting stars?

Straight after sunset, which makes the Draconids a very rare kind of display. Almost all other meteor showers are best viewed after midnight, when the observer’s location is firmly on the night-side of the planet. However, the Draconids are different. It’s the only meteor shower that's best seen earlier in the evening.

Although the moon will be waxing and 78% illuminated — and only five days away from being a full Hunter’s Moon — it will be relatively low in the southern sky, leaving the northern sky around Draco dark enough to see any shooting stars.

Are meteor showers dangerous?

Absolutely not, though the language used can be confusing. Meteoroids are tiny particles of space dust and easily burn-up in the Earth’s atmosphere. Freak events like the house-sized asteroid that exploded 14 miles above Chelyabinsk in Russia in 2013 have nothing to do with meteor showers.

When’s the next meteor shower?

October is a good month for shooting stars. Next up after the Draconids is the Orionid meteor shower — named after the constellation of Orion and caused by Halley’s Comet — which runs Oct. 2 – Nov. 7, with the peak night of activity on Oct. 21 – 22.