Stargazers, grab a blanket and go outside, the first meteor shower of Fall is set to peak tonight. The Draconids lasts from around October 6-10 every year, but your best chance to catch a shooting star in action is to go outside and look up tonight.
The Draconids may not be the most spectacular celestial sparkle of the year, with an expected five to 10 meteors an hour, but it is one of the most convenient to watch, which makes it enticing.
Meteors are known as shooting stars due to the flashes of light caused by the pieces of dust and rock – some as small as a grain of sand – burning up in the atmosphere as Earth moves through a comet's tail. Meteor peaks are when we move through the greatest number of particles in a comet stream, creating the lightest, brightest, and most abundant shooting stars.
Most showers are best seen in the hours before dawn, however, the Draconids are most visible in the evening because the constellation they appear to radiate from – Draco – is highest in the sky at nightfall. Fortunately, the thin waxing crescent Moon sets before nightfall so will not hinder any viewing.
Although meteor showers are named for the constellation they seem to appear from, in reality, they appear from all directions in the sky so you don't need to look in any particular direction – just up.
The Draconids are a group of (relatively) slow-moving meteors that follow on the tail of the comet 21P/Giacobini-Zinner. They move at 64,000 kilometers (40,000 miles) an hour, which seems incredibly fast but is actually fairly slow in meteor terms. This means the meteors are faint and frequently burn out before they have the chance to reach the Earth's atmosphere. Only the very largest generate enough heat to make them visible to the human eye.
They are also quite a young shower, only observed for the first time less than a century ago. Most displays tend to produce five or so meteors an hour but in 1933 and 1946, the showers were especially spectacular and spectators reported seeing up to several thousands of meteors per hour. In 2011, around 600 shooting stars an hour were observed.
Unfortunately, we shouldn't expect a repeat of 1933, 1946, or 2011 – astronomers predict storms of roughly five to 10 meteors an hour. But if you don't want to wait up until the early hours, or have young star gazing enthusiasts with you, this is the perfect shower.
Don't worry if this one fails to ignite. The Orionids will peak in late October followed by the Southern Taurids, Northern Taurids, and Leonids in November.