When space rocks, called meteoroids, enter Earth’s atmosphere at high speed and burn up, the resulting fireballs or “shooting stars” are called meteors.
They can vary in size from dust grains to small asteroids and in general the larger the rock the greater the spectacle. If a meteoroid survives a trip through the atmosphere and hits the ground, it is referred to as a meteorite, with the most recent one landing on a driveway in Winchcombe, Gloucestershire, earlier this year.
Scientists estimate that about 44 tonnes of meteoritic material falls on the Earth each day. Almost all the material is vaporised in the Earth's atmosphere, leaving a bright trail affectionately referred to as a "shooting star."
Several meteors per hour can usually be seen on any given night. Sometimes the number increases dramatically — these events are termed meteor showers.
The Draconids meteor shower peaking on Friday, October 8, is a minor meteor shower producing up to 10 meteors per hour. They are produced by dust grains left behind by comet 21P Giacobini-Zinner, which was first discovered in 1900.
With a new moon, the resulting dark skies bodes well for an excellent show. Best viewing will be in the early evening from a dark location. Alternatively the Orionids meteor shower is an average shower generating up to 20 meteors per hour at its peak. They are produced by dust grains left behind by comet Halley, which has been known and observed since ancient times.
The Orionids usually put out the greatest number of meteors in the few hours before dawn, with the expected peak in the morning of the 21st. Unfortunately a full moon means moonlight will flood the sky nearly all night, washing out all but the brightest meteors. There is also the minor Southern Taurids peaking on the 10th with a possible five sightings per hour.
The frustrating Full Moon on the 20th is referred to as the Hunter's Moon, also known as the Blood Moon, because at this time of year the leaves are falling and the game is fat and ready to hunt. Alternatively the New Moon on the 6th is the best time of the month to observe faint objects.
For planet hunters, Mercury is at its best just before sunrise, while Venus provides a good evening target from mid-month. Although Mars is not visible Jupiter is a brilliant, magnitude minus 2.6, early evening object found in the constellation of Capricornus near the southern horizon. Not far away is the splendid ringed planet Saturn, well worth a look with a small telescope.
The remote planets Uranus and Neptune are still visible with binoculars or a small telescope but you will need a good star chart to locate them.
Finally periodic comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko makes a welcome return to the inner Solar System providing one of the best cometary events of the year. 67P appears in the morning sky throughout the month which should be visible through a small telescope as it moves through Taurus.
Steve Szwajkun, Shropshire Astronomical Society