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How to See the Draconid Meteor Shower Breathe Fire This Weekend

The Draconids are appropriately named for a celestial dragon.

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"Comet 21P" is the source of the Draconids.
NASA

The Perseids in August might be the most famous annual meteor shower, but October is a sleeper season for shooting star shows that just might produce more total meteors on balance over the full month. Major meteor showers like the Orionids and the Taurids are active later in October, but first come the unpredictable Draconids, which are set to peak this Saturday evening. 

The Draconids are noteworthy for a few reasons. For one, they are best observed as night falls in the evening versus before dawn, which is the prime meteor-spotting hour for most other showers.  Second, the Draconids (also sometimes called the Giacobinids) aren't considered a major meteor shower by the International Meteor Organization -- typically you'll be lucky to see five of them per hour -- but they have been known to produce unexpected outbursts of hyperactivity called meteor storms. These flurries of shooting stars have treated watchers to as many as 600 meteors per hour as recently as 2018. 

Officially, an outburst is not expected this year, but it all depends on whether Earth floats through a particularly dense patch of debris left behind by the comet 21P/Giacobini-Zinner, and this has happened without warning in previous years. 

This is how most meteor showers work: at roughly the same time each year, our planet drifts through some cloud of detritus left behind by a comet on one of its previous runs through the solar system. Those individual little motes of dust collide with our upper atmosphere and burn up, producing the fleeting trail across the sky we see from the surface. Sometimes, pebbles or larger pieces of material can create bright and more dramatic fireballs too.

The Draconids don't usually produce a lot of fireballs, but it's fun to hold out hope for such sensations since the shower's name comes from the constellation Draco the fire-breathing dragon. Draconids will appear to radiate outward in all directions from a point in the night sky near Draco.

However it's not necessary to know exactly where Draco is to see Draconids, as these meteors will be zipping all over the sky. If you want to add some pro chops to your shooting star-spotting game, you can locate the constellation in the sky with an app like Stellarium and then orient yourself in that direction while watching for meteors.

But what's most important to see any meteors is to find a spot with minimal light pollution and a wide view of the sky. Head outside after dusk on Saturday and let your eyes adjust. Then just lay back, relax and give yourself at least an hour to see what you can.

While conditions aren't ideal for observing this year due to a nearly full moon this weekend, the promise of a potential dragon's horde of shooting stars showering down in a Draconid outburst will draw the most dedicated night sky watchers out anyhow.

If things don't pan out, don't worry: the Orionids are a major meteor shower set to peak in the second half of October. More on those later.