I have always been fascinated by the Draconids meteor shower from parent comet 21P/Giacobini-Zinner. During my teenage years, I remember having a big poster in my room of this comet; an artistic rendering of the International Cometary Explorer spacecraft passing through 21P’s tail. As for the Draconids, part of my fascination with it is due to its erratic and elusive behaviour. It is one of those meteor showers that produces nearly nothing on most years, but can be intense and very spectacular on rare occasions. This can occur on years when the comet is close to perihelion. Most of its material (young and old dust trails) tend to hang around not too far behind the comet, and when we are lucky enough to pass through a concentration of dust, the Draconids become active. In 1933 and in 1946, meteor storms of 7,000/hr and 20,000/hr (respectively) occurred above Europe and North America. Those were some of the strongest meteor displays of the 20th century. During other perihelion years, such as 1952, 1985, 1998, 2011 and 2012, the Draconids produced strong outbursts of a few hundreds per hour.
For 2018, the situation at first glance looked highly promising. The Earth would pass the node of comet 21P/Giacobini-Zinner only 22.7 days after the comet itself has passed by this same region of space. With only 0.017 AU of separation between the respective orbits of Earth and the comet, the analogue method of predicting meteors would suggest that a storm (more than 1000/hr) was possible. What’s more, this would occur around 23-00 UT (7:00-8:00pm Eastern Daylight Time) favouring Eastern North America and Europe along with New Moon conditions. Yet, when meteor dynamicists looked at the situation, they found that the Earth would pass through a “gap” within the Draconids network of dust, perturbed and rarified by previous Earth encounters. As a result, activity was predicted to be low. The models from Vaubaillon and Maslov forecasted ZHR of only 10-20, while NASA’s MEO indicated that activity would be “mild to moderate”. Only a few individuals (Ye, Kastinen and Kero) predicted a stronger outburst but little details were known. A study by the UWO (Egal, Wiegert, Brown, Moser, Moorhead, Cooke) called for a strong meteor storm at the L2 region of space where the Gaia spacecraft is located, but their results at Earth again showed rates on the order of just a few tens per hour at best. One thing that was quite well agreed upon all forecasters was the time of maximum activity.
No matter the strength of this year’s Draconids, this was still an excellent chance for me to see them — something that I had been pursuing for over 27 years now.
So in early October (about a week prior to the Draconids), I began examining the weather forecasts. The closer we got to the peak night, the worse it looked for the Ottawa area. It appeared likely that I would have to hit the road and drive several hours to reach clear skies. First, I considered driving to the Canadian Maritimes (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick or PEI). The east coast was favoured to be the best position in the world to witness the 2018 Draconids in full darkness and with a high radiant. The weather initially looked good for the Maritimes, but then it deteriorated. Then, I turned my attention to the high pressure building up into the U.S. that looked more promising. It showed a large stretch of clear skies from Indiana to Ohio and perhaps Lake Erie. Many parts of that high pressure has scattered clouds and appeared to be a warm air mass. I decided that north east Indiana had the best prospects of clear skies, so I started looking for a site to camp out and observe. With approximately 11 hours of driving, this was absolutely as far south-west as I wanted to go. Any further and I risked that much of the Draconids would be lost in bright evening twilight during the critical time.
Late on Sunday Oct 7th, I checked the weather once more… it was a GO… so I packed my car and off I went! I drove until late evening, which brought me past London (Ontario) and I stopped at a motel to sleep. The following day, I left early in the morning and drove all day to my destination: Lost Bridge State Area, Salamonie Lake in Indiana, an outdoor recreation MNR managed property. The temperature there was 30C (86F) – highly unusual to be this hot even for that area! I still had a thick sweater on! The friendly staff at the park greeted me, and offered some possibilities for me to setup at night with a good open view of the sky. The park is huge (12,000 acres) but at this time of the year, I was almost all alone, except for the friendly park staff. It was late afternoon, so I quickly scoped the area out. First, I explored the beach, and then I looked around the camping sites. There, I noticed a sign that indicated “wildlife viewing area” so I went for a closer look. Much to my delight, it was the perfect observing site! Not only was it completely wide open and secluded, but natural and surrounded by a low tree line towards my desired view point (north-west) … WOW!!! It reminded me of Bootland Farm with the wilderness all around and no people to worry about. Back at the office, the staff was happy to allow me to setup there with my chair and cameras. My camping site and car was still only a few hundred feet away, just a short walking distance. This worked out perfectly!
Setting up well before the sunset was crucial for this early evening event. I needed to be in my chair well before darkness, so my goal was to have everything ready and into position by 7:00pm EDT. I kept my setup simple (consisting of two cameras on fixed tripods, internal batteries and chemical hand warmers/socks acting as low-tech dew heaters for the lenses). The sleeping bag was completely unnecessary because it was 25C and very warm after sunset. It didn’t take long for the mosquitoes to come out and they were ferocious. I was glad I remembered to bring my Thermacells! The noise from a variety of insects, birds and frogs was crazy loud — almost deafening!
As I watched the Sun set, I was all-set but a bit nervous. I questioned myself: “Did I travel too far in the wrong direction? Will it be all over by the time it gets dark?” But here I was, and at least the sky was all clear and looking great! At 7:30pm (all times in EDT), my cameras were activated, and I was in my chair looking up even though the sky was still too bright to see any meteors. I could only see was Vega, Deneb and Arcturus. At 7:40pm, I spotted the ISS making a nice bright pass low in the north. At 7:45pm, the limiting magnitude was 3.0 (could see Polaris, Albireo and Cassiopeia). Still no meteors. At 7:50pm, I could start to make out mag 4.0 stars at the zenith (Epsilon Lyra) and the head of Draco was out. I started thinking that maybe I was cutting it too close by travelling south-west? But those doubts quickly evaporated. At 7:55pm, a short and very slow +2 meteor was seen across the zenith…… a DRACONID!!!!! There was no doubt about it! I took an “off the record” note of it as the sky was still not dark enough to begin a formal watch. Two minutes later, at 7:57pm, another short +2 Draconid was caught going through the tail of Draco. Then, at 7:59pm, a bright mag 0 Draconid flew near Lyra, and at 8:00pm a +3 Draconid went out to the north! Sky was now mag 4.5 and I still could not quite see the handle of the Little Dipper. Yet all these meteors were going by — no doubt a STRONG outburst was in progress beyond expectations! From 8:03-04pm, a burst of FIVE Draconids were seen in that one minute alone!
At last, the sky near the zenith reached mag 5.00 at 8:05pm, just barely good enough to “sign-on” for formal observing. I kept my field almost straight up where the sky was darkest. What I saw was a very strong activity of more than one meteor per minute on average. Sometimes, there was multiple Draconids within one minute! All of them moved very slowly, were usually very short, and many were seen near the radiant. Many of the Draconids were faint, but a few brighter ones appeared. At 8:11pm, a nice -1 flew near Mars, leaving a one sec train behind just as the brighter parts of the Milky Way began to show up. At 8:15pm, with the sky reaching 5.70, three Draconids (a +1, -1 and +2) all appeared a few seconds apart! The sky finally got to full darkness (mag 6.10) at 8:20pm. I noted many Draconids having the “fragile” appearance — meteors with brief flares and that seem to dissipate into a nebulous “fuzz”. I have seen this effect with the Camelopardalids in 2014 and the June Bootids of 2004. However, not all Draconids appeared this way. Many of them had smooth paths that slowly came in and out.
The first hour (8:05-9:07pm EDT) was definitely very strong with 73 Draconids. It felt like I was watching one of the major showers!! The meteors came in waves, many times there would be several Draconids in a single minute! They calmed down around 8:45pm, only to rise up again at 9:00pm (01:00 UT) with multiple meteors per minute. What a great display!!!
The second hour (9:07-10:08pm EDT) was still strong with 51 Draconids. Between 9:30pm and 9:45pm, the rates were dropping but shortly after 10:00pm (02:00 UT), another flurry of Draconids occurred and surprised me! In just 13 minutes (from 9:59-10:12pm), I counted seventeen Draconids! After this flurry, the shower started declining more steadily.
The third hour (10:08-11:14pm EDT) produced 23 Draconids. The rates were declining but some bright meteors appeared during this hour. At 10:27pm, a magnificent -3 Draconid descended 35 degrees into Capricornus, and fragmented into 3 pieces that continued some distance before fading away. It had the appearance of an earth-grazer… impressive and a nice contrast from most typical short DRAs!! Five minutes later, a mag 0 Draconid descended into Corona Borealis with a yellow-blue colour – nice one too!!
The fourth hour (11:14pm-12:15am EDT) had just 5 Draconids.
During the fifth hour (12:15-1:25am EDT), the Draconids looked just about done as only 1 member of that shower was seen. At the end of of this hour, clouds started moving in. I decided to sign-off, pack up and go to sleep.
In all 5 hours of viewing, I saw 183 meteors (153 Draconids, 7 Southern Taurids, 2 October Camelopardalids and 21 sporadics). One very interesting aspect is that I noticed in both visual and in my photos that the radiant for this 2018 outburst was shifted by about 3 degrees towards the zenith from the traditional position. The radiant was very close to the star Grumium in Draco, and centered at near 17h49 (267) +56. This might not seem like much but the difference was quite noticeable.
It was certainly a very strong meteor display, consisting of very rare meteors! This outburst also lasted much longer that normal and had several sub-peaks! It was also very cool to see such a strong rate decline as the evening went by; it’s almost like I could feel the Earth moving right out of the Draconids stream. I sure wish that the weather would have been more co-operative in North America to allow more observers to have seen this. According to the IMO’s Visual Campaign, the ZHR exceeded 100/hr from 6:00-9:00pm EDT, and had a peak of 157/hr shortly after 7:00pm EDT on October 8. These rates are several times stronger than what several forecasters were calling for. I took a chance by travelling a long distance and it was absolutely worth it! Witnessing a significant Draconids outburst has been a long term life goal of mine. In 2018, not only did I observe 21P/Giacobini-Zinner for the first time, but I was fortunate enough to see its meteors in larger-than-expected numbers! It’s definitely a year that I won’t soon forget!
Here’s my photo results:
BELOW: Composite image (digital combination) of 98 Draconid meteors captured on the night of October 8-9 2018. These were very slow moving meteors captured during a rare outburst. This wide-angle photo shows the radiant of shower (the point in the sky where the meteors appear to trace back from if you drew an imaginary line behind them, due to perspective). Salamonie Lake, Indiana, USA. Canon 6D and Sigma Art 35mm f/1.4 lens (at f/2.0), ISO 1600
BELOW: Same image with constellation lines drawn in for reference:
BELOW: Same image with lines drawn behind each meteors to show actual radiant compared to the predicted one:
BELOW: Same image with position of predicted radiant and 2018 radiant near 17h49 (267) +56:
BELOW: Draconid fireball in evening twilight, with multiple brightness variations and fragmentation!
Photographed on October 8/9 2018. Canon 5D and Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 lens (at f/2.0), ISO 1600
BELOW: Composite image (digital combination) of 34 Draconid meteors captured on the night of October 8-9 2018.
Canon 5D and Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 lens (at f/2.0), ISO 1600
October 8/9 2018, 00:05-05:25 UT (20:05-01:25 EDT)
Location: Lost Bridge State Recreation Area, Salamonie Lake, Indiana, USA
(Long: 85° 37’ 42″ W; Lat: 40° 46′ 3″ N)
October Draconids (DRA) – 17:32 (263) +56
October Capricornids (OCC) – 20:28 (307) -09
Southern Taurids (STA) – 01:44 (026) +07
October Camelopardalids (OCT) – 11:13 (167) +78
00:05-01:07 UT (20:05-21:05 EDT); 3/5 trans; F 1.00; LM 5.50; facing NW80 deg; teff 1.00 hr
DRA: seventy-three: -1(2); 0(2); +1(6); +2(7); +3(20); +4(23); +5(13)
Sporadics: one: +3
Total meteors: Seventy-four
01:07-02:08 UT (21:07-22:08 EDT); 2/5 trans; F 1.00; LM 6.10; facing NW60 deg; teff 1.00 hr
DRA: fifty-one: +1(7); +2(8); +3(9); +4(15); +5(12)
STA: one: +2
OCT: one: +3
Sporadics: seven: +3(3); +4(3); +5
Total meteors: Sixty
02:08-03:14 UT (22:08-23:14 EDT); 2/5 trans; F 1.00; LM 6.10; facing NW60 deg; teff 1.00 hr
DRA: twenty-three: -3; 0; +1(5); +2(2); +4(5); +5(9)
STA: one: +4
Sporadics: three: +3; +4(2)
Total meteors: Twenty-seven
03:14-04:15 UT (23:14-00:15 EDT); 2/5 trans; F 1.00; LM 6.10; facing NW60 deg; teff 1.00 hr
DRA: five: +4(3); +5(2)
STA: three: +2; +4(2)
Sporadics: three: +2; +4(2)
Total meteors: Eleven
04:15-05:25 UT (00:15-01:25 EDT); 2/5 trans; F 1.00; LM 6.00; facing NW60 deg; teff 1.16 hr
DRA: one: +2
STA: two: +2; +3
OCT: one: +3
Sporadics: seven: +3(3); +4(2); +5(2)
Total meteors: Eleven
Link to my International Meteor Organization (IMO) report form which contains shorter 5 minutes observing periods during the outburst:
Here are a few daytime images of the location and observing site: