If you’re looking for some free entertainment this weekend, just go outside and stare up at the sky. In the early evening hours of Saturday and Sunday, the Draconid meteor shower will be peaking and there’s a good chance that you’ll catch a lot of shooting stars.
Meteor showers are actually just celestial debris breaking from a parent comet and hurdling towards Earth. When they hit the atmosphere and start to burn up brightly upon entry, they give us the impression that we’re witnessing a series of “shooting stars.”
Some meteor showers are bigger than others, and the Draconid shower has been known to gift the sky with hundreds of meteors an hour. Back in October of 2011, European skywatchers saw over 600 meteors an hour when the Draconid shower lit up the sky. That year its parent comet, Giacobini-Zinner, was closest to the sun in orbit. That’s not the case this year, and the amount of meteors you can really vary annually. Some years, it can get down to just “a handful,” as EarthSky puts it, every hour. With the quantity being such a gamble, you’ll just have to look up to find out.
Meteor showers are generally named after the place in the sky that the shower appears to be originating from, a point called the radiant. In this case, the radiant is the constellation of Draco the Dragon. Since Draco is located in the far northern sky, optimal viewing of this meteor shower favors the Northern Hemisphere.
Although meteor showers generally hit their peak after midnight, this celestial event is best viewed in the early evening hours. Plan to do your skywatching after the sun goes down, before the waning gibbous moon envelopes the sky its bright light.