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Draconid meteor shower coming this weekend

October 6, 2011 |  4:07 pm

Draconid
The Draconid meteor shower is expected to begin its display Saturday, and NASA says it could be a dazzling year for the usually humdrum meteor shower ... if only we could see it.

"We're predicting as many as 750 meteors per hour," Bill Cooke of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office said in a statement.

Unfortunately for those of us who live in the United States, the timing of the meteor shower couldn't be worse. Scientists at NASA say the shower is expected to begin on Saturday at noon Eastern -- and will have its strongest activity between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. Eastern

"The timing of the shower favors observers in the Middle East, north Africa and parts of Europe," Cooke conceded.

But even folks in those areas aren't in such great viewing shape, not with a fairly full (85%) moon this weekend. So even if the meteor shower occurs at night local-time, it might still be hard to see.

The Draconid meteor shower occurs each October as Earth passes through a trail of dust left by the comet 21P/Giacobini-Zinner. The comet circles the sun every 6.6 years, and each time it circles, it leaves a ribbon — or filament — of space dust behind it. Here on Earth, we see streaks of light whenever a piece of that dust encounters Earth's atmosphere.

"Most years we just pass through gaps between filaments, maybe just grazing one or two as we go by," Cooke said. "Occasionally, though, we hit one nearly head on — and the fireworks begin."

That's what NASA is expecting will happen this year. In fact, one professor at the University of Ontario is predicting as many as 1,000 meteors an hour.

And here's something else that's cool about the Draconid meteor shower: Although the meteors are generally faint, they're also slow-moving, which mean they streak leisurely across the sky.

It's almost worse knowing what we're missing.

But as Ben Buress, a staff astronomer at the Chabot Space and Science Center in Oakland, points out -- it can't hurt to find a dark field and look up Saturday night. You never know ... maybe NASA got its timing a bit wrong.

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--Deborah Netburn

Image: The Comet Giacobini-Zinner, shown in this photo illustration, is a fairly frequent visitor to the inner solar system and is responsible for the Draconid meteor shower. The illustration is from the National Optical Astronomy Observatory / Assn. of Universities for Research in Astronomy / National Science. Credit: Associated Press

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