Tonight’s the big night. Earth passes through dusty filaments left by Comet Giacobini-Zinner more than a century ago. As we do, dust and sand-sized particles will vaporize as fiery meteors from a point in the sky in the constellation Draco the Dragon. Peak meteor activity is very brief and occurs during mid-afternoon for North America. The sky will be dark at that time over Europe, Africa and the Middle East, making that vast region perfect for watching the spectacle, which is expected to produce from 750 to 1,000 meteors per hour. When a meteor shower is that prolific, it’s more properly called a meteor ‘storm’.
If you live in the western hemisphere, check the sky anyway during late twilight and early evening in case a few should come our way. Spaceweather.com has a live meteor radar link set up where you can listen to the ‘pings’ or echoes from passing meteors via the Air Force Space Surveillance Radar in Texas. The facility transmits a 216.98 MHz signal into the sky 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Meteors, satellites and spacecraft passing overhead reflect those signals back to Earth. Another good resource is the American Meteor Society’s Draconid website, where you’ll find visibility maps, background information and much more. Let’s hope predictions comet true.
For the very latest results on meteor counts, please click HERE. ** Update 8 p.m. CDT: The shower peaked between 8-8:30 p.m. London, England time with a maximum rate of about 400 meteors per hour.
While you’re out watching for javelins of flaming comet dust, turn around to enjoy the sight of the waxing gibbous moon in the southeast. Because of the moon’s glare, you won’t see many stars in its vicinity, but well below it, the bright star Fomalhaut (FOE-ma-low) in the faint constellation of Pisces Austrinus the Southern Fish and the somewhat fainter Deneb Kaitos (DE-neb KYE-tos) still hold their own.
Deneb Kaitos, the brightest star in Cetus the Whale, is an Arabic name meaning ‘whale’s tail’. It’s an orange giant star similar to brilliant Arcturus found off the Big Dipper’s handle in the western sky.
Fomalhaut is surprisingly close to Earth – only 25 light years – and has a Jupiter-sized planet with three times that planet’s mass revolving around it with a period of 875 years. It was among the very first (and few) extrasolar planets to be directly photographed with the Hubble Space Telescope. That was in 2004 and 2006. More recent observations have found the planet, named Fomalhaut b, in a different position than expected and too bright for its size. Either its calculated orbit is wrong or perhaps the object isn’t a planet after all. Further observations will make a determination one way or another. And that’s how science works – cherished ideas often require refinement and sometimes even end up on the cutting room floor.