This weekend, a spectacular meteor shower may dazzle, but as astronomer Mark Thompson reports, never bet on the Draconids.
No, shooting stars aren't "stars," they're meteors.
The October Draconid Meteor Shower may dazzle the world's skies this weekend.
The Draconids are the dusty debris deposited in space by Comet Giacobini-Zinner
Many of us grew up with the idea that we should make a wish when we see a shooting star. As a child there was something quite magical about the event, but the reality is very different.
Shooting stars, as you probably already know, have nothing to do with stars, instead they are just tiny bits of rock burning up high in the atmosphere, flashing across the sky as they fall to Earth.
They are more accurately called "meteors" but if they survive their fiery plunge and land on Earth they are called "meteorites." Earth encounters bits of interplanetary debris like this all the time but a few times each year we experience a shower of meteors and, like the October Draconid Meteor Shower this coming weekend, they bring with them the possibility of being spectacular.
Every six years, Comet Giacobini-Zinner completes an orbit of the sun leaving behind a trail of cometary debris. The Earth passes by Giacobini-Zinner's orbit every October and when it does, we experience gentle increase in the number of meteors flashing through the atmosphere.
The shower is called the Draconids (or "Giacobinids" after co-discoverer Michel Giacobini) and it usually peaks around 8/9 Oct. Usually we look forward to no more than ten meteors per hour but this year there is a possibility of seeing significantly more! I should emphasize the word "possibility" here as level of activity in a meteor shower is notoriously hard to predict and the predictions offer conflicting numbers for the weekend.
Typically, if the Earth passes through the comet's orbit just after the comet has passed through the inner solar system, we would expect a particularly active peak but Giacobini-Zinner doesn't do that until February next year. However, it seems we are heading for clouds of debris shed by the comet on previous passes, the closest approach to a cloud from the pass in 1887.
While models seem to conflict, NASA isn't taking any chances and the agency is looking at the potential risk of damage to the International Space Station and other satellites. Bill Cook of NASAs Meteoroid Environment Office says "…we are expecting as many as 750 meteors per hour!"
Whether we will get the level of activity predicted by NASA and other organizations, or just a handful, it seems Europe and the Middle East are best placed to witness the peak which is expected between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. GMT on Oct. 8.
The best thing about meteor showers is that you need no equipment to observe them. Just wrap up warm, get outside on a comfortable chair, sit back and watch. The moon will be gibbous on the 8th so keep your back to the Moon to increase your chances of seeing the fainter ones meteors.
Wherever you are on the 8th, it's worth keeping your eyes on the skies during the hours of darkness as meteors can be tricky little blighters to predict and you never know, maybe, just maybe, you will get to see nature's very own firework spectacular.