How to see the 2021 Draconid meteor shower

See if you can spot a Draconid meteor with our beginner's guide.

The 2021 Draconid meteor shower will be best seen on the evening of 8 October. Their radiant – the point from which the meteors appear to emanate in the night sky – is the constellation Draco, which can be found near the constellation Ursa Minor.

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Typically, the Draconids produce a peak zenithal hourly rate (ZHR) of 10 meteors per hour, this being the total number of meteors you might expect to see under perfectly dark, clear conditions with the meter shower’s radiant overhead.

For more advice, read our guide on how to observe a meteor shower, discover what causes a meteor shower or read our guide to the best equipment for photographing meteors.

A chart showing the position of the Draconid meteor shower radiant in the night sky in October 2021.
A chart showing the position of the Draconid meteor shower radiant in the night sky in October 2021. Credit: Pete Lawrence

However, short-term Draconid meteor boosts – up to 300 meteors per hour – have been seen in recent years. They are slow moving meteors with an atmospheric entry speed of 21km/s.

The Draconid meteor shower could well be one of the top meteor showers to observe in October 2021, due to a convenient lack of bright moonlight.

That pesky Moon, which will wipe out a lot of the Orionid meteor shower later in the month, is new on Wednesday 6 October and will not interfere with the 2021 Draconids.

Get weekly lunar phases and times delivered to your email inbox by signing up to the BBC Sky at Night Magazine e-newsletter.

Looking north: Draco, the Dragon winds its way between Ursa Major, the Great Bear and Ursa Minor, the Little Bear. Credit: Pete Lawrence
Looking north: Draco, the Dragon winds its way between Ursa Major, the Great Bear and Ursa Minor, the Little Bear. Credit: Pete Lawrence

Draconid meteor shower trails are especially slow, the meteoroids entering Earth’s atmosphere at 21km/s – less than one-third the speed of November’s Leonid meteorids.

The Draconids (also known unofficially as the Giacobinids, in reference to the parent comet 21P/Giacobini-Zinner) have a low ZHR peak value, but increased activity has been observed over the past few years.

The shower put on spectacular displays in 1933 and 1946, with ZHR rates measured at thousands of meteors per hour. Enhanced rates were also seen in 1998, 2005, 2011 and 2012.

Draconid Meteor Shower. Credit: Robin Lee / Getty Images
Draconid Meteor Shower. Credit: Robin Lee / Getty Images

The 2012 event consisted mostly of very faint trails, which were detected by the Canadian Meteor Orbit Radar facility.

More recently, in 2018 the shower put on an impressive display equating to a ZHR of 150 meteors per hour over a four-hour period.

Although there are no predictions for enhanced activity in 2021, the whole point of meteor observing is to record what actually happens regardless of predictions. It’s only with recorded data that future predictions can be refined.

How to observe a Draconid meteor

A red torch enables you to check charts without ruining dark adapted vision.
A red torch enables you to check charts without ruining dark adapted vision.

Meteor showers have to be one of the best astronomical events for beginners, because they should be observed with the naked eye and you don’t need any fancy equipment to spot one.

This makes a meteor shower also the perfect opportunity to get children excited about astronomy.

The Draconid meteor shower may lack the intensity of a major annual shower like the Perseid meteor shower or the Geminid meteor shower, but in 2021 you stand a good chance of seeing one.

And in any case, it’s still a great excuse to get out and get looking up at the sky.

Find a place away from light pollution, provided it is safe to do so, as observing under a dark sky will increase your chance of being able to spot a meteor.

If you are lucky enough to live away from the light pollution of towns and cities, you can always observe from your own garden. Just turn off all the lights so they don’t spoil the view.

Avoid using white lights such as torches and mobile phones, as this will spoil your dark-adapted vision. If you need to see in the dark, use a red torch. You may be able to turn your phone’s screen red in the settings.

Watching a meteor shower doesn't require any fancy equipment: just clear, dark skies, warm clothing and some good company. Credit: Anthony Sabatino / EyeEm / Getty Images
Watching a meteor shower doesn’t require any fancy equipment: just clear, dark skies, warm clothing and some good company. Credit: Anthony Sabatino / EyeEm / Getty Images

It will take around 20 minutes for your eyes to adapt to the darkness, but during this time you will be able to see more and more stars in the night sky.

Find the Draco constellation and then look about two thirds up in the sky in any direction. If you can trace the shooting star you’ve seen back to Draco – the radiant – then chances are you’ve seen a Draconid meteor.

Use a reclining chair or sunlounger to enable you to look upwards for long periods without getting cramp in your neck.

And remember: clear, autumn nights can get very cold if you are standing or sitting still for a long time. Wrap up warm, bring something to eat and perhaps a hot drink as well.

Clear skies, and happy meteor hunting!

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This guide originally appeared in the October 2021 issue of BBC Sky at Night Magazine.