It’s that time of year again, when Mother Earth’s orbit takes us through the remants of the tail of Halley’s Comet to give us one of the year’s most spectacular meteor showers: the Orionids.
Two weeks ago the Draconids showered us with more than 1,000 meteors an hour, but they were seen mainly by radar telescopes, they were so small. The Orionids have been shooting through the atmosphere all week, and they will peak tonight, October 20–21, just before dawn. Keen observers can expect to see up to 25 per hour, with some of them pretty bright, against skies extra-dark because of an early-setting moon.
“This will be an excellent year to look for the Orionids, since the moon will set around 11 p.m. local time on Saturday night (October 20) and will not be a hindrance at all; so the sky will be dark for prospective meteor watchers right on through the first light of dawn early Sunday morning,” Space.com tells us.
The radiant, or point at which the shooting stars originate, is the raised club of what is known today as Orion, the hunter in the sky. Orion is known for the three stars that make up his belt, or sword, though there are as many interpretations of the figure as there are cultures.
The Navajo call Orion the First Slim One, he who is the keeper of the months, representing agriculture. According to the Western Washington University Planetarium, the Chinook Tribe of Washington and Oregon see the hunter’s belt and dagger as a large and small canoe, respectively, and legend has it that they’re racing to see who will catch the first salmon in the Big River, which is the Milky Way. The fish is Sirius, one of the brightest stars in the sky.
Sirius, in fact, this year forms a triangle with Jupiter and Venus during the height of the shower to form an extra-stunning setting, according to NASA.
“The shower is framed by some of the brightest stars and planets in the heavens,” NASA said in a media release. “Constellations such as Taurus, Gemini and Orion provide a glittering backdrop for the display. But that’s not all. This year, Venus and Jupiter have moved into position with Sirius, the Dog Star, to form a bright triangle in the eastern pre-dawn sky. On the morning of October 21st, blazing pieces of Halley’s Comet will cut straight through the heart of this celestial triad.”
What sets the Orionids apart in general is that they sometimes travel extremely fast—140,000 or more miles per hour—and thus hit the atmosphere with quite the literal dramatic flare. They are also known for leaving smoke trails. The news is full of accounts of the fireball that blazed across California’s night sky on October 17, complete with loud sonic boom. That, the experts say, was most likely an Orionid meteor.
According to Space.com, 1 to 2 a.m. through dawn is the best time to see this shower, because that’s when the part of the sky that the meteors emanate from will be at its highest above the southern horizon. As usual, the darker the sky, the better.
“This is undoubtedly connected in some way to the makeup of Halley’s Comet,” Space.com said of the smoke trails. “So it is that the shooting stars that we have come to call Orionids are really an encounter with the traces of a famous visitor from the depths of space and from the dawn of creation.”
Below, NASA recounts the comet tale.