Draconid 2023 meteor shower tonight: How to see the rare peak this October

Mary Raleigh

Tonight is your last chance: here’s how to spot a shooting star from the Draconid meteor shower.

The Draconid meteor shower is still visible tonight, and although considered a minor shower, conditions are looking favourable. Another shower, the Southern Taurids are also in full swing, while the Orionids too, began on 2 October. So, if you’re lucky, you might be able to spot a Draconid, Orionid and a Taurid fireball!

With the Leonids shower still to look forward to in November and the Geminids in December, it might be useful to plan ahead. We’ve pulled together a calendar of all the year’s meteor showers, to give you the best chance of spotting some shooting stars.

When is the Draconid meteor shower in 2023?

The Draconid meteor shower – also called the Giacobinids meteor shower, or simply Draconids – began on 6 October 2023 and will remain visible for just four days, until 10 October.

The shower, although short-lived, peaked on 8 October in the early evening through to the early hours of 9 October. It is still visible tonight, 9 October 2023.

When is the best time to see the Draconid meteor shower?

The best time to see the Draconids is from nightfall on the 9 October, to the early morning hours of 10 October. The waning crescent Moon sets before sunset – at 5:09pm on 9 October in the UK (4:34pm local time in New York City, 4:20pm in Los Angeles) – so will not interfere with proceedings.

Unlike other meteor showers which are best seen in the early morning hours, the Draconids are somewhat of an oddity, as they are best viewed in the evening. Good news for those of us who like going to bed at a reasonable hour.

This is because the radiant point within Draco, is at its highest in the sky just after sunset.

“The optimal viewing time for this meteor shower is in the evening, after nightfall, as the radiant point of the shower reaches its highest point in that constellation of the night sky at this time,” explains Dr Minjae Kim, an astronomy research fellow at the University of Warwick.

Dr Darren Baskill, an astrophotographer and astronomy lecturer at the University of Sussex, adds: “Because the cometary dust is travelling from the north of the Solar System to the south, it might be better to look earlier in the evening when the radiant point is higher in the sky and we can see shooting stars all around. It’s a bit like looking through the sunroof to see the snow falling in all directions!

“While it is usually better to observe shooting stars in the early morning when we are on the front of the Earth, for this particular shower its radiant point is much lower in the sky at that time, and so the ground hides up to half of the meteors!”

How to maximise your chances of spotting a Draconid: Viewing tips

You don’t need binoculars or a telescope to watch a meteor shower. In fact, it’s better if you don’t use them. To maximise your chance of spotting meteors – and get as wide a field of view as possible – your eyes are the best instrument. We can’t predict precisely where the shooting stars will appear, as they will streak across the whole sky.

“To fully appreciate this celestial event, minimal light pollution is ideal. Find a location with an unobstructed horizon that offers a clear view of the stars on a dark, cloud-free night,” says Kim.

To maximise your chances of spotting a Draconid, head outside in the evening after dark and let your eyes adjust for around 20 minutes. If you can, try to avoid areas of light pollution and find a spot where you can take in as much of the sky as possible. As the radiant is directly overhead, it’s a nice excuse to scoot out a recliner and get comfortable.

But if all else fails, the Taurid meteor shower is still going, and the Orionids have just begun (peaking 20-21 October), so if you can, pay attention to which direction the meteors come from – and you’ll get an idea as to whether you saw a Draconid, Orionid or Taurid.

Where to look for Draconid meteor shower

The radiant, the point in the sky from which the meteors appear to emanate, is in the constellation of Draco the Dragon. As a circumpolar constellation in the northern sky, the dragon wraps around Polaris, the north star for the northern hemisphere. It weaves between the Big Dipper (aka the Plough) in Ursa Major and Ursa Minor (the Little Dipper asterism), with the head of the dragon near the foot of the Hercules constellation.

It’s high overhead, and covers a lot of the sky (Draco is a BIG constellation). To find it, locate Polaris and the lip of the saucepan in Ursa Major, then extend an imaginary line between the two. You’ll hit Giausar, a semi-regular pulsating star that makes up the very tip of Draco’s tail.

But although the radiant is where Draconids appear to originate, they will be visible over the whole sky. So, look up – and try to take in as much of the sky in your vision as possible. If the weather stays fine – a recliner (and a cuppa) will do the trick.

If you’re still struggling to find Draco in the night sky, using an app may help (check our best astronomy apps).

What causes the Draconid meteor shower?

The Draconid meteor shower occurs – like most meteor showers – when Earth’s orbit passes through the trail of dust and debris left by a comet, in this case, Comet 21/P Giacobini-Zinner. For this reason, the Draconids are also sometimes known as the Giacobinids. When the shower reaches its peak, that’s when we’re passing through the densest part of the dust stream.

With an orbit of just 6.6 years, Comet Giacobini-Zinner is a short-period comet. It’s also a small comet, estimated to have a nucleus just 2km in diameter. In 2018, it was discovered that the comet is depleted in carbon dioxide and carbon-chain molecules, which indicates that it may have originated in a relatively warm part of the Solar System.

How many meteors will we be able to see?

The number of meteors that we can expect to see from the Draconid meteor shower is variable. Most showers are relatively weak, with around 5-10 meteors per hour (in reality, it’s likely to be less).

However, once in a while, Earth’s orbit intersects with a particularly dense patch of debris resulting in a more impressive shower. There have also been several meteor storms associated with this shower; back in 1933 a whopping 500 Draconids per minute were seen in Europe. And if we go back to October 1946, there was a Draconid storm where people in Canada counted over 2000 meteors – around 50 to 100 per minute. Similarly, fewer showers were also observed in 1926, 1952 and 1985, but the shower has somewhat calmed down since then.

And it’s (likely) down to gravitational interference from Jupiter that we no longer experience these Draconid storms. This meddling, called ‘perturbations’, from the gas giant has changed the comet’s orbit enough so that the debris trail no longer passes as close to Earth’s orbit as it used to.

All in, therefore, 2023 looks set to be a rather normal year, where we can only expect to see a handful of meteors per hour. That being said, a late rising, waning crescent Moon plus a clear forecast, means conditions are reasonable, so it’s worth a gander if you can.

What else can I see in the night sky tonight?

With Draconids few and far between, you might want to turn your attention to another target while you wait. A bright Jupiter* will be visible on the eastern horizon as darkness falls on 8 October, and will remain above the horizon all night. As we approach opposition on 3 November 2023, it’s getting brighter still, essentially giving us a ‘full’ Jupiter. It’s a lovely sight, and with a pair of binoculars, you can also pick out the four Galilean Moons: Callisto, Europa, Io, and Ganymede as soon as it’s dark.

While you’re watching for those elusive Draconids, why not play a game of hide and seek with Io? Jupiter will occult (pass in front of) its moon Io every 1.77 Earth days (i.e., one Io orbit around Jupiter). If you take a look at Jupiter after dark (sunset is at 6:23pm from London, 6:26pm in New York City, and 6:29pm in Los Angeles), you’ll not be able to see Io until it starts to peek out from behind Jupiter at around 9:30pm, when it will look as though it’s almost touching Jupiter.

Meanwhile, Saturn is visible higher in the sky towards the southeast, in the constellation Aquarius.

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