On Saturday 8 October 2011 a rare event may occur – a meteor storm! The usually sedate Draconids meteor shower only produces a few shooting stars per hour in most years, but in some years we have a meteor storm, and that’s just what’s predicted for this year.
During a meteor storm the Earth passes through a particularly dense clump of comet dust, meaning that rates of shooting stars temporarily spike, and estimates this time suggest the possibility of up to 10 shooting stars per minute during the peak of the storm. However a nearly full Moon may spoil the view, possibly drowning out all but the brightest meteors, reducing the actual observed rate perhaps 1 per minute – still well worth looking out for.
The peak is set to occur at 2000UT (2100 BST), and is ideally placed for observers in the UK. Activity is expected to increase from 1600UT (1700 BST) but at that stage the sky will still be bright in the UK.
If you’re keen to witness this (possibly) amazing event here are some top tips:
- Head out early. Start your meteorwatch once the sky gets dark enough. For most people in the UK this will be from 1900 – 1930 BST (anyone living in the north of Scotland will have to wait a bit longer). Although the peak of the storm is estimated to occur around 2100 BST there will be plenty to see in the hours leading up to the peak.
- Know where to look. The Draconids all appear to originate from the constellation Draco, which will be high in the NW sky, just above and to the left of the north star, Polaris. However the meteors will streak across the entire sky so don’t just look NW.
- Know what to look for. Meteors appear as bright streaks of light moving rapidly across the sky. They last for a fraction of a second, but the Draconids are unusually slow meteors. Still, blink and you might miss one.
- Keep the Moon to your back. The full Moon will drown out the light from all but the brightest Draconids, and if you look at the Moon it will spoil your night vision, so keep it behind you, ideally blocked out by a building or tree.
- You just need your eyes. Binoculars and telescopes, while ideal for observing faint nebulae and planets, are no good for meteorwatching. You want to take in as much of the sky as you can, and have as wide a field of view as possible, so just use your eyes.
- Get comfortable. The best bit of meteorwatching kit is a reclining lawn chair. Point it towards the NW, lie back, look up and enjoy the show.
- Keep warm. It will be very cold outside if it is clear, so wrap up warm. If you’re lying back on a reclining chair, wrap yourself in a blanket or sleeping back form maximum warmth.
- Get away from city lights. This isn’t as important for this shower, as the Moon is flooding the sky with natural light anyway, but in general the fewer lights you have around you the better.
- Get away from clouds. This hopefully goes without saying, but if your sky is cloudy you won’t see much. The UK Met Office website can tell you if there is a clear sky anywhere near you, and you should consider traveling to get clear skies. You can also check out meteor activity using the Meteor Live View.
- Record your observations. If you want to take part in a meteorwatch and submit your observations there a several ways you can do that. One fun and accessible approach is to tweet your observations with the #meteorwatch hashtag your post code and country code to see your results on the meteor map. If you want to take more detailed rigourous data you can submit an observing form to the International Meteor Organisation, the British Astronomical Association or the Society for Popular Astronomy
Make sure you tell your friends! This a great opportunity to see a very rare meteor storm, so get as many people as possible outside and looking up.
CAVEAT: This is only a predicted meteor storm; it may not occur and if it doesn’t meteor levels will be very low.