The celestial dragon could be breathing fire tomorrow — the Draconid meteor shower. The meteors all appear to “rain” into the sky from Draco, the dragon, which is high in the north in the evening hours. Other than their location, though, they aren’t related to Draco at all. Instead, they’re the spawn of a comet.
Comet Giacobini-Zinner orbits the Sun once every six-and-a-half years, shedding tiny grains of rock all the way. Earth crosses the comet’s orbital path every October, so it sweeps up some of these grains of cometdust. As they enter the atmosphere, they vaporize, creating the streaks of light known as meteors.
Most of the time, the stream of cometdust is pretty thin, so the Draconids are puny. But sometimes, the comet sheds big clumps of material all at once. When Earth flies through such a clump, there’s a much stronger shower. In 1933 and 1948, the Draconids produced “storms” of up to 10,000 meteors per hour.
Comet experts say we’ll fly through a couple of clumps tomorrow. They won’t produce a storm, but they could generate up to a few hundred meteors per hour.
Unfortunately, the peak is expected during the afternoon for those of us in the U.S. Some of the meteors could trickle on after sunset, but the gibbous Moon will wash out all the brightest of them.
Still, if you have a dark but safe skywatching site, you might want to check out the evening sky to see if you can catch some lingering flames from the celestial dragon.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2011
For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.