Avid sky watchers will be delighted on Thursday October 8, a day bracketed by two astronomical wonders: a dawn dance of Venus, Mars and Jupiter under a crescent moon, and the Draconid meteor shower just after sunset.
The waning crescent moon—easing into an invisible new moon—will create the same ethereal triangle with the sky’s other two brightest lights as it did in June, only this time it will be just before sunrise instead of just after sunset.
But there’s more. This time Mars will join them as well, though much fainter than its sibling planets, says Earthsky.org. In addition, the event kicks off a series of spectacular conjunctions.
“Tomorrow morning might be a good time to call for extra celestial traffic control,” reports Universetoday.com. “A slip of a crescent moon will join a passel of planets in the dawn sky for the first of several exciting conjunctions over the next few days.”
But the most obvious show is on Thursday just before dawn.
“Anywhere worldwide, the brightest starlike object near the moon on October 8 will be Venus,” says Earthsky.org. “Jupiter, the second-brightest starlike object, will be nearby.”
The planets will also nuzzle the moon on Friday October 9, Earthsky.org says. Before that happens, though, train your eyes on the sky just after sunset on October 8 for the Draconid meteor shower, which peaks this time every year.
“The Draconid shower is predicted to produce the greatest number of meteors on the night of October 8,” says Earthsky.org. “Watch for them first thing at nightfall. Fortunately, the waning crescent moon won’t interfere with this year’s Draconid meteor display.”
That’s because the moon won’t rise until the wee hours of the morning on October 9, leaving a clear view of any meteors that deign to grace our skies. The meteors, debris from Comet 21P/Giacobini-Zinner, which was discovered in 1900 by an astronomer named Michel Giacobini and then noted again in 1913 by someone named Zinner. Hence the dual name.
In terms of how many meteors one might see, it’s a difficult shower to predict. The normal average, according to Sky and Telescopein a 2011 story, is between 10 and 20 meteors hourly. But it has been known to do more.
“The fickle Draconid meteor shower may or may show up this evening,” Sky and Telescopesays of 2015 expectations. “The shower has occasionally been quite active in recent years.”
It was spectacular in 2011, as well as in a handful of other years.
“The Draconid meteor shower produced awesome meteor displays in 1933 and 1946, with thousands of meteors per hour seen in those years,” says Earthsky.org. “Four 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.”
What is completely predictable, though, is the unusual time of day that the shower is most visible. Unlike most meteor showers, the time to watch this one is not in the middle of the night, but just after sunset.
“Watch at nightfall and early evening because that’s when the radiant point for the Draconid shower is highest in the nighttime sky,” says Earthsky.org. “We emphasize it, because most meteor showers are best after midnight … but not this one.”