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Draconid meteor shower: Don't let daylight or nearly full moon stop you

Draconid meteor shower viewing is potentially much more exciting this year, as Earth is expected to hit some tendrils of comet dust head-on. But the peak is Saturday afternoon.

By Staff writer / October 7, 2011

This photo illustration shows the Comet Giacobini-Zinner, the source of the annual Draconid meteor shower.

National Optical Astronomy Observatory/Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy/AP/File

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If you live in North America, Saturday night will bring one annual meteor shower you won't have to set an alarm clock to see.

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The Draconids are coming, and astronomers who forecast these events suggest these meteors could be slicing across the sky at a rate of from 500 to 1,000 an hour at the shower's peak.

Before you get too excited, however, some caveats:

1) The shower is expected to peak between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, meaning the folks in the best position to see the show live in the Middle East, North Africa, and parts of Europe. The shower will appear over North America as it's waning.

2) The moon will be up, and it's only a couple of days away from full-moon status. That means it may be hard to see all but the brightest meteors – from a shower known for a high proportion of dim bulbs.

Still, "if I were a member of the general public, I'd sure stick my head out tomorrow night just in case," says Bill Cooke, who heads NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office at the Marshall Spaceflight Center in Huntsville, Ala. Typically the Draconids peak at about 20 meteors an hour, astronomers say.

The meteors will appear to travel from a point near the head of Draco the Dragon, a constellation visible all year for most people with a view of the northern sky.

The shower's source is a comet known as 21P/Giacobini-Zinner. It's a member of the Jupiter Family of comets, objects that come from the Kuiper Belt, a broad swath of ice-rich orbs that lies beyond Neptune.

The comet orbits the sun once every 6.6 years, leaving tendrils of dust in its wake. This year's expectations for large numbers of meteors is based on projections that the Earth will encounter three or four of these tendrils, including one that touched off a dazzling display in 1900 that yielded 600 meteors an hour at its peak. That was the year the comet was first detected.

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