Across Europe, the entire night sky was aglow. On October 9, 1933, thousands of dazzling meteors streaked through the darkness, “falling as thickly as the flakes of snow in a snow storm,” as one observer in Ireland said at the time.
Viewers counted more than 100 shooting stars per minute at various sites throughout the continent on that night. In the island country of Malta, people saw as many as 480 meteors per minute.
Known as a “meteor storm,” this rare spectacle was the peak of the annual Draconid meteor shower, which is happening once again this weekend. In an average year, the event is nothing extra special—the 2023 Draconids are expected to peak at about ten meteors per hour under ideal viewing conditions. This iteration of the shower, which occurs from October 6 to 10, will reach its maximum activity on October 8 and 9.
While the shower’s meteors, to be frank, are no Perseids, the exciting possibility of another Draconid storm “keeps many skywatchers outside—even in moonlight,” according to EarthSky’s Bruce McClure, Deborah Byrd and Don Machholz.
Here’s what you need to know about this year’s Draconid meteor shower.
Where do the meteors come from?
Meteor showers occur when Earth passes through a cloud of debris left by an asteroid or comet. As these specks streak through the atmosphere, they brush against atoms and molecules, generate heat and ultimately burn in a bright, breathtaking path across the sky.
Draconid meteors are bits of rock and ice left by the comet 21P/Giacobini-Zinner, and some are as small as a grain of sand. The comet itself is also petite, with a diameter of just 1.24 miles.
Named for Michel Giacobini, who discovered the comet in 1900, and Ernst Zinner, who spotted it once more in 1913, the “dirty snowball” is on a roughly 6.6-year trajectory around the sun. It stands out in space history as the first comet to have been visited by a human spacecraft—in 1985, NASA’s International Cometary Explorer flew through its tail, collecting valuable data about how solar wind interacts with comets.
How can I watch the meteor shower?
The best time to spot the Draconids is the early evening on October 8, according to the Farmer’s Almanac. Unlike some other famous meteor showers, the Draconids’ most impressive viewing time is just after dark, rather than in the middle of the night or before dawn.
That’s because the constellation Draco the dragon—the point that Draconid meteors appear to emanate from—is highest in the sky around dusk at this time of year, per EarthSky. But to spot the meteors, you won’t have to pinpoint Draco’s location. Simply lie back, be patient and take in the widest swath of sky possible.
As long as you can find clear skies away from artificial light pollution, conditions will be ideal for meteor spotting: On the shower’s peak night, the moon will be a waning crescent and only reflect a little bit of light to compete with the shooting stars’ glow.
Ever wondered how the Draconid meteor shower looks from space? Each October, our planet moves through the dust cloud left behind by comet 21P/Giacobini-Zinner, creating a beautiful show. The peak is around October 8-9 when we come closer to the core of this cosmic debris. pic.twitter.com/ZLypp5zvxV— Star Walk (@StarWalk) October 3, 2023
How rare are meteor storms?
The sky-illuminating Draconid meteor storm of 1933 was unusual—but it wasn’t a one-time fluke. Such fantastic phenomena have happened at several points in history.
Thirteen years after the display in Europe, United States-based observers got a magnificent view of their own: Americans could see about 50 to 100 meteors per minute during the Draconid shower in 1946. People might have spotted more, but cloudy weather and a nearly full moon got in the way. Even still, an observer in Chicago counted 149 meteors—which he called “flashing projectiles”—in the short span of ten minutes.
Such a show has hardly been repeated since then, but smaller meteor outbursts showed up in 1952, 1985, 1998 and 2011, as Space.com’s Joe Rao wrote last year. EarthSky also described an outburst in 2018.
“An intense shower seems to occur only when the Earth passes just inside Comet Giacobini-Zinner’s orbit shortly after the comet itself has gone by,” per Space.com.
A dazzling end of the year
Even if the Draconids aren’t the year’s best show, they mark the start of a season of ramped up meteor activity. From now until the end of December, a shower will occur every one or two weeks, per the Farmer’s Almanac.
Among the most famous are the Orionids, which will peak before dawn on October 21, and the Leonids will light up skies in mid-November. The Geminids, known as one of the best annual showers, will peak from December 13 to 14. This prolific shower will also nearly coincide with a new moon, making sky conditions ideal for the spectacle.