There’s nothing quite as awe-inspiring as seeing meteors shoot through the sky on a clear and moonless night. Luckily, this October and November offer plenty of opportunities to be awestruck with no less than three meteor showers heading Earth’s way.
Draconids – from 8 October
The temperamental annual meteor shower known as the Draconids peaks this week under dark skies, offering skywatchers a nearly perfect chance to see as many as two dozen shooting stars per hour.
The Draconids are predicted to reach peak performance in the predawn hours Friday morning, and some should remain visible Friday night.
A shooting star streaks over Sweden's northern lights during the 2011 Draconids meteor shower. Image: EPA.
Most years see about 20 shooting stars per hour at peak times, some years have seen those rates unexpectedly skyrocket and become true meteor storms.
While unlikely and rare, these massive upticks in meteor numbers can also occur when Earth slams into an uncharted but particularly dense part of the meteor stream left behind by the parent comet.
One tip for the best viewing experience is to escape light-polluted cities to the dark countryside, where even the faintest meteors can be seen.
No need for telescopes or even binoculars, as the individual streaks of light can appear over large spans of the overhead sky. So it’s important to find a viewing spot, such as an open field, with unobstructed views of the entire sky.
While the Draconids are best seen from the Northern Hemisphere, Slooh’s broadcast of the shower means no one has to miss out.
The Draconid meteors will appear to shoot from the constellation Draco in northern skies. Draco is a large constellation between the bright stars Vega and the North Star, with the Big Dipper near the horizon. Image: Andrew Fazekas using SkySafari.
Orionids – from 20 October
Although not as showy as the August Perseids, for example, the rather modest Orionids do have a claim to fame: They're the product of Halley’s comet.
"As Halley's comet orbits the sun, it has left behind dust that was liberated from the comet when it was warmed by its close passage to the sun, most recently in 1986," astronomer Michael Solontoi said.
"The Orionid meteor shower we see is the result of the Earth passing through this trail of debris deposited by the comet."
A composite of the Orionids meteor shower. Image: Slooh Observatory.
The Orionids appear around the same time each year, when sand grain-size pebbles from Halley's debris stream race through the sky at speeds of more than 145,000 kilometres an hour.
At these high speeds, the pebbles disintegrate in Earth's upper atmosphere, creating streaks of light.
Leonids – from mid-November
The Leonid meteor showers occur every year in mid-November, but some years are far better than others.
Past Leonid events have been particularly spectacular— from 1999 to 2002, the yearly showers neared the intensity of "meteor storms," when viewers spotted up to a thousand meteors an hour.
The Leonids are remnants of the Tempel-Tuttle comet, which follows a 33-year orbit that extends as far as the planet Uranus.
The showers are visible when Earth travels through debris left behind by the comet. Those particles, which can be as small as a grain of sand, appear as meteors streaking across the sky.
Each year, Earth makes its way through different trails of debris, sparking varied displays of brightness.
Leonid's meteors are the fastest, racing through the atmosphere at 71 kilometres a second.