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Draconid Meteor Shower: Dazzling Dragon Spews Shooting Stars

Despite a semi-bright crescent moon, the Draconid meteor shower should be easy to spot just after nightfall on Friday October 7, 2016.
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They are not known for their lustrousness, but the Draconid meteors that grace the skies each October do stand out for two reasons: They are the precursor to a slew of showers between now and the end of the year, and they are best viewed just after sunset, unlike most shooting star sessions.

This year they peak on the evening of Friday October 7, when the constellation Draco the Dragon—the shower’s radiant, or the point the meteors seem to flow from—is at its highest point. And, bonus: They have been known to surprise.

“Watch out if the Dragon awakes!” cries Earthsky.org. “The Draconid meteor shower produced awesome meteor displays in 1933 and 1946, with thousands of meteors per hour seen in those years. Five years ago—in October 2011—people around the globe saw an elevated number of Draconid meteors, despite a bright moon that night. European observers saw over 600 meteors per hour in 2011.”

No such display is predicted for this year, but it can’t hurt to try.

The Draconids are the debris shed by Comet 21P/Giacobini-Zinner. Discovered in 1900 by Michel Giacobini and again in 1913 by Ernst Zinner, the comet orbits the sun every 6.6 years or so, according to Timeanddate.com. Since the biggest shooting-star bursts have occurred during years when it was closest to the sun, and the last time that happened was in 2012, this year is not on the docket for a major show. But then again, as Earthsky.org notes in its comprehensive guide to the Draconids, meteor shower predictions are like any weather forecast—subject to change.

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“As far as we know, nobody is calling for the Draconid meteor shower to burst into storm in 2016,” says Earthsky.org. “But you never know for sure with the Draconids, so it’s worth watching out for on the evening of October 7. Just keep in mind that meteor showers are notorious for defying predictions, either surpassing or falling shy of expectation.”

“With such a short-period comet you never know,” Sky & Telescope said of the 2015 shower—advice that holds true this year as well.

If your view is obscured by clouds or hurricanes, you can check out the live broadcast at the online Slooh community observatory starting Friday October 7 at 8 p.m.

Another possible impediment is light from the waxing crescent moon, but that could be circumvented by watching earlier in the evening, when Earth’s satellite is low in the southwest, Earthsky.org says.

And if this one doesn’t work out, stay tuned. The Draconids kick off a streak of showers between now and the end of the year. In about two weeks we’ll be treated to the Orionids, fragments of Halley’s comet, and a few weeks later the Leonids in mid-November.

So keep your eyes on the skies as the end-of-year holiday season begins unfolding, and take advantage of the expanded viewing time afforded by the longer nights. For information on the best weather conditions, moonlight times and other factors that influence one’s viewing ability, Space.com has an app for that.