For those of you who enjoy wishing on a star, October is a double-header for meteor showers, which means twice as much fun for meteorite lovers in Jasper Dark Sky Preserve this Fall.
While you can see a few solid streaks of light in the skies above Jasper throughout the year, the prime wish-making experience comes when the frequency of shooting stars reaches one or two per minute.
That happens when the earth passes through parts of its orbit that contain tiny bits of debris left behind from the tails of passing comets.
Best apps for navigation
You don’t have to be an astronomer to find the starting points for meteor showers. I recommend using SkyView Free to successfully find your way around the night sky and locate the radiant (the point where the meteors will appear to come from).
Avoid the moon
To see the October meteor showers, no special gear is required. In fact, telescopes and binoculars are less effective than just looking up with your unaided eyes.
But you want to make sure you turn your back to the moon. Or find one of the conveniently-placed mountains that encircle Jasper, and locate yourself so the moon is blocked from your view by a rocky outcrop.
Give your eyes about a half hour to adjust to the darkness. Then look straight up: although they originate from a specific radiant point, “shooting stars” from meteor showers can actually show-up anywhere in the sky.
October 8: Early evening with Draco the Dragon
The Draconids are the first meteor shower to appear in October, radiating from the constellation Draco the Dragon in the northern sky between the Big Dipper and Little Dipper.
In 1933 and again in 1946, Draco was a fiery, angry dragon, producing thousands of meteors per hour. The dragon awoke most recently in 2011 and 2018, spewing out 600 meteors per hour. These were most visible to European observers.
Unlike most meteor showers which start the big show after midnight, the Draconids are best viewed earlier in the evening, just after it gets dark. Finding Draco is easy and fun: star-hop from either the Big Dipper or the Summer Triangle to the star Rastaban (which means “Head of the Dragon”). The shower ran from October 7 to 9, and peaked on the 8th.
Telescopes and binoculars will do nothing to improve your view while watching for meteors. So find a great viewing area, bundle up, and keep your eyes on the north skies to get the best views.
You never know when a meteor outburst will occur, but this year we experienced a sleepy dragon, sending out only a handful of meteors per hour.
October 22: Hunting meteorites with Orion the Hunter
When the famous Halley’s Comet travels through our solar system, the sun melts some of its icy nucleus, allowing chunks of dust and debris to break away from the comet and pass through the upper atmosphere as meteorites. These comet chunks are extremely fast, flying towards us at up to 66 kilometers per second—that’s nearly 240,000 km per hour! Their speed and brightness often leave glowing trails in the sky or become fireballs exploding in a flash of light.
The meteorites radiate from high above Betelgeuse, on Orion’s right shoulder, closer to the top of his club, which is where they get their name—the Orionids. Ten to 20 meteorites are visible per hour and are at their best after midnight, especially just before dawn. This meteor shower will peak on October 22.
Most visible in the southeastern sky, turn yourself to face Amber Mountain, in the Maligne Range, from a clear, comfy spot on the ground near the Jasper townsite, and you’ve got yourself a great viewing location for one of the most beautiful showers of the year.
When you’re wishing on a star (or two or three this month), consider this: each meteor that you will see is between the size of a pebble and a grain of sand. We see these cosmic flickers because they’re so close—only a few dozen kilometres above us, and because of the intense beams of light that streak across the sky as each fragment superheats the air in front of itself, vaporizing in our atmosphere at thousands of kilometres an hour.
Peter McMahon // firstname.lastname@example.org
Peter McMahon is the General Manager of the Jasper Planetarium and was first to propose that Jasper become a dark sky preserve.