Dragon’s roar promises meteor storm for 2011

A storm of shooting stars is being predicted for this Saturday night (October 8/9, 2011) as the Earth has a rare encounter with a comet’s tail. Europe and the Middle East are particularly favoured but the event will occur in daylight from the US and so be invisible there.

Map of sky showing radiant. Click to enlarge. (Credit: Society for Popular Astronomy)

NASA experts say as many as 750 meteors an hour from a shower called the Draconids should be seen flashing across the sky from the moment it gets dark until late in the evening. Space scientists are concerned that the celestial bombardment could damage satellites by frying their electronics and sending them out of control.

The sky spectacle will occur as we plough through dust left by a comet called Giacobini-Zinner. Previous storms have been seen in 1933 and 1946 and there were also high rates of meteors seen in 1985, 1998 and 2005. But in most years the Earth misses the stream of comet debris and nothing is seen at all. This means that, unlike the Perseids in summer, the Draconids are not an annual event.

Meteor streaks will appear in any part of the sky but their paths will trace back to the northern constellation of Draco, the Dragon, which gives them their name. The show is predicted to end at around 10pm UK time (21h UT) around five hours after it has begun. Many of the meteors from the Dragon’s roar may be lost in the glare of a waxing Moon that is approaching its Full phase. But Britain is well placed to view the shower if skies are clear, unlike America where it will still be daylight when it happens.

Robin Scagell, of the Society for Popular Astronomy, said last night: “The UK is perfectly placed to witness this rare spectacle. Stargazers will have their fingers crossed for clear skies so that we can see just what happens.” Here’s Skymania’s advice on how to observe meteors.

NASA’s confidence that the storm will occur comes after scientists were able to map the distribution of dust in the wake of the comet which orbits the Sun once every six and a half years.

They discovered that tonight we will run into a stream of debris that was ejected by the comet in 1900. The predictions are thought sufficiently strong that scientists will fly aboard two Falcon 20 aircraft over Scandinavia to photograph the event. Others from NASA and Japan have travelled to Germany and Uzbekistan for a ringside seat.

The shooting stars will burn up in our atmosphere. But astronomers will aso be viewing the Moon, which has no atmosphere, through their telescopes to see flashes from Draconids hitting its surface.

Some fear the shower will threaten orbiting satellites and even the International Space Station as they orbit the Earth. Though the meteor particles will only be the size of grains of sand, the main hazard comes from electrostatic discharge when they hit a spacecraft at high speed.

The meteoroid instantly vaporises and forms electrically charged gas, or plasma, that coud short-circuit satellites’ sensitive electronics and send them spinning out of control.

The Draconids’ dust particles travel at half the speed of other meteor streams and so scientists are hopeful that this will make them less of a threat to their spacecraft.

Update added on 9 October: Results collected by the International Meteor Organization show that there was a peak at around 20h UT on 8 October. Zenithal Hourly Rates – the number one might expect under ideal conditions if the shower’s radiant was directly overhead – reached around 300 meteors an hour which is a notable burst but short of storm levels.

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