The Greeks and Romans thought meteors’ dramatic light shows in the night sky were portents of future events. For us, gazing up into a clear night sky isn’t just a view into the peace and tranquillity of the night time; it’s a chance to glimpse traces of the origin of time itself…
The grains of dust and hulks of rock leftover from the formation of the planets in our solar system are constantly moving through space. When small chunks of rock and dust enter the atmosphere, at up to 70km per second, friction with the thin air of our skies creates a bright, fleeting glow as the rock burns and disappears. If you witness this trail of light you have seen a meteor. The bright appearance of these rocks – moving across the black sky – led to the meteor misnomer ‘shooting star’.
If you witness this trail of light you have seen a meteor. The bright appearance of these rocks – moving across the black sky – led to the meteor misnomer ‘shooting star’.
In clear skies you can see meteors at any time, but your best chance to spot them is during the meteor ‘showers’ that occur when the Earth passes through the dust left behind by a comet (frozen chunks of dust and gas – remnants of the Big Bang), or in some cases, asteroids (primarily formed of rock), that orbit the sun.
As the longer nights stretch out ahead of us, which meteor showers might you see in the dark skies above the Lake District this autumn?
Draconid meteor shower, 5 October to 9 October
In the wake of the Comet 21/P Giacobini-Zimmer, your best chance of glimpsing the Draconid shower is on 8 October. Unlike other meteor showers that are better viewed in the early hours, the Draconids are best viewed on a clear unobstructed horizon in the evening – so there’s no need to set your alarm clock for some unholy hour in the middle of the night.
Sometimes named the Giacobinids, after the scientist who discovered Comet 21-P, Michel Giacobini, if you trace the meteors they seem to originate from a point in the constellation of Draco from where they take their common name. The constellation is highest in the sky at nightfall.
Orionid meteor shower, 1 October to 6 November
The fast-moving, fine trains of light from Orionid are associated with the famous Comet Halley. The meteors’ path seems to originate from a point in the Orion constellation, which gives the meteor shower its name. The Lakes are a brilliant place to the view the constellation and in 2020, the Orionid meteor peak will be on the night of 21 – 22 October, from midnight until dawn.
Visible around the world, the Orionid meteor shower is made up of pieces of Comet 1P/Halley. While Comet Halley only passes earth every 75-76 years, the tiny debris falling from the comet as it orbits the sun enters our earth’s atmosphere each year. An early start could be rewarded with as many as 20 spectacular meteors per hour.
Seeking out a truly dark sky means the chance to see close to 100 meteors per hour, with the meteors of Geminid burning in several colours due to the trace metals found in the rocks entering the atmosphere.
Geminid meteor shower, 4 December to 17 December
The Geminid is a reliable and remarkable meteor shower that will peak on 14-15 December in 2020. Seeking out a truly dark sky means the chance to see close to 100 meteors per hour, with the meteors of Geminid burning in several colours due to the trace metals found in the rocks entering the atmosphere.
Locating the bright star Castor in the constellation Gemini will show the point at which the meteor shower begins, giving the meteors – which are visible before midnight – their name.
Geminid is one of two major meteor showers that do not originate from comets. The space rock and dust originates from the asteroid 3200 Phaeton, with the peak of the shower coinciding with a New Moon in 2020 – perfect conditions for meteor watching.