With a closest distance greater than Jupiter’s orbit, this comet will be cool, but it won’t exactly light up our sky. When comets get closer and cross the Earth’s orbit, the debris they leave will trigger meteor showers far into the future. This week in What’s Up is an upcoming meteor shower, the Draconids. This meteor shower is highest in the sky in the evening, which is unusual for meteor showers who mostly peak in the morning. Like I mentioned last week, this one falls around the new moon, and while the moon will be slightly illuminated, it will be below the horizon before midnight, so it will not interfere with viewing the event.
The Draconids typically produce only a handful of meteors an hour in the modern era. In the mid-twentieth century, specifically in 1933 and 1946, they produced some of the most spectacular meteor showers of that century with hundreds of meteors an hour. The Draconids have produced storms with thousands of meteors an hour on several occasions in recorded history.
The apparent point in the sky where the meteors come from – the radiant – is in the constellation Draco, giving the shower its name. To find Draco, first find the Summer Triangle, the asterism formed by Deneb, Vega, and Altair. Follow Vega up and to the right a short distance until you see two dim stars. This is the radiant for the Draconids. We’ll have finding charts at DailySpace.org.
The best way to see a meteor shower is with the unaided eye, the widest field of view you can get. Be sure to let your eyes get well adjusted to the dark; don’t use a planetarium app on your phone. Even if it has a red light function the brightness will impact your dark adaption. You can download a map from a link at our website and print it out to bring with you to the field. Use a proper red light flashlight to see the map when you’re out. You can get one from Amazon using our affiliate link so that we can benefit as well. A reclining chair may also be helpful for remaining comfortable for hours of looking for meteors. I happen to like my hammock.
If you want to try to take pictures of this meteor shower, the best way to do that is to use an interchangeable lens camera with a wide-angle lens, at least 20 millimeters, wider if possible. Mount your camera on a tripod and take very long exposures using bulb mode and a remote shutter release cable (but not an app on your phone because you want to preserve your night vision), and you might capture a few meteors.
The Draconids are also sometimes called the Giacobinids after Michael Giacobini who discovered the comet which is the source of material for the meteor shower, 21P/Giacobini-Zinner. Giacobini discovered it first in 1900 and another man named Ernst Zinner discovered it independently three years later, which is called “recovering” so they both get credit.
This comet has an orbital period of just under seven years. The last close approach to the Sun was in 2018. Every time it gets close to the Sun, the comet gets heated up and sheds debris, which becomes the meteor shower when that debris hits the Earth’s atmosphere.
The International Cometary Explorer (ICE) spacecraft visited Comet 21P back in 1985, becoming the first spacecraft to fly by a comet. ICE also flew by Comet Halley, part of a group of spacecraft to do so. NASA maintained communications with ICE until 1997, nearly twenty years after its launch. Almost twenty years after that, a group of citizen scientists successfully made contact with the spacecraft in 2014 and reactivated some of its systems 36 years after launch.
ISEE 3 (NASA)
ISEE-3 Reboot Project Update (Space College)