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Orionid Meteor Shower

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Skywatchers can start looking for Orion low in the eastern sky before dawn on any morning around the peak, Oct. 20-21. The setup is seen here from mid-northern latitudes. Even though the radiant, or point of origin of the meteors is in Orion, meteors can appear far from the constellation.

One of the year's best sky shows will peak between Oct. 20 and 22, when the Orionid meteor shower reaches its best viewing. The meteors that streak across the sky are some of the fastest and brightest among meteor showers, because the Earth is hitting a stream of particles almost head on.

The particles come from Comet 1P/Halley, better known as Halley’s Comet. This famous comet swings by Earth every 75 to 76 years, and as the icy comet makes its way around the sun, it leaves behind a trail of comet crumbs. At certain times of the year, Earth's orbit around the sun crosses paths with the debris. 

"You can see pieces of Halley's Comet during the Eta Aquarids [in May] and the Orionid meteor shower [in October and November]," NASA meteor expert Bill Cooke said.

The Orionids are named after the direction from which they appear to radiate, which is near the constellation Orion (The Hunter). In October, Orion is best visible around 2 a.m. Skywatchers in 2017 will not have moonlight to contend with, as the first-quarter moon will have set long before the meteors put on their best show. If you miss the peak, the show is also visible between Oct. 15 and 29, as long as the moon isn't washing the meteors out.

Sometimes the shower peaks at 80 meteors an hour; at others it is closer to 20 or 30. Cooke predicted that in 2017, the peak would be at the smaller end of the scale, echoing the peaks of 2016 and years before.

How to view the show

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Orionid meteors are visible from anywhere on Earth and can be seen anywhere across the sky. If you find the shape of Orion the Hunter, the meteor shower's radiant (or point of origin) will be near Orion's sword, slightly north of his left shoulder (the star Betelgeuse). But don't stare straight at this spot, Cooke said, "because meteors close to the radiant have short trails and are harder to see — so you want to look away from Orion." 

As is the case with most nighttime skywatching events, light pollution can hinder your view of the Orionid meteor shower. If possible, get far away from city lights (which can hinder the show). Go out around 1:30 a.m. and let your eyes adjust to the dark for about 20 minutes. Bundle up against the cold if necessary. Lie back and use only your eyes to watch the sky. Binoculars and telescopes won't improve the view, because they are designed to see more stationary objects in the sky.

Some Orionids will appear very fast and bright, since they can whiz by at up to 148,000 mph (238,000 km/h) in relative speed. That's just six kilometers an hour slower than the Leonids, the speediest show of the year, Cooke said.

It's tempting to think that the brighter meteors represent fragments that would reach the ground, but Cooke said that isn't the case with the Orionids. These tiny comet fragments — some as small as a grain of sand — are called meteoroids. When they enter Earth's atmosphere, they become meteors. Friction from air resistance causes meteors to heat up, creating a bright, fiery trail commonly referred to as a shooting star. Most meteors disintegrate before making it to the ground. The few that do strike the Earth's surface are called meteorites. [How Often Do Meteorites Hit the Earth?]

halleys comet
An image of Halley's Comet taken in 1986. Credit: NASA

Cometary origins

Astronomers have recorded Halley's Comet as far back as 240 B.C. but no one realized that the same comet was making multiple appearances. In 1705, then-University of Oxford professor and astronomer Edmund Halley published "Synopsis Astronomia Cometicae" ("A Synopsis of the Astronomy of Comets"), which showed the first evidence that the comet is reoccurring. By studying the historical records of a comet that appeared in 1456, 1531, 1607 and 1682, Halley calculated that it was in fact the same comet and predicted it would reappear in 1758. While Halley died before the comet's return, it did appear on schedule and was named after him.

Reports of the Orionids, however, did not first appear until 1839 when an American in Connecticut spotted the shower, Cooke said. More observations of the shower were recorded during the Civil War between 1861 and 1865. Cooke told Space.com he wasn't sure why the meteor shower was discovered so late, given that records of Halley's Comet exist for millennia. 

The next perihelion (closet approach of Halley's Comet to the sun) is expected around July 2061. 

FROM NASA - UPDATE nasa

orionid meteor shower october 2015

​If you're patient and you don't mind sacrificing a few hours of sleep, you may be treated to some celestial fireworks this week.  

Orionid meteors appear every year around this time, when Earth travels through an area of space littered with debris from Halley’s Comet. This year the peak will occur on the night of Wednesday, Oct. 21 into the morning of Thursday, Oct. 22.  

"The Orionids will probably show weaker activity than usual this year,” says Bill Cooke of the NASA Meteoroid Environments Office at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. “Bits of comet dust hitting the atmosphere will probably give us about a dozen meteors per hour."

The best time to look for Orionid meteors is just before sunrise this Thursday, Oct. 22, when Earth encounters the densest part of Halley's debris stream.

Observing is simple: set the alarm a few hours before dawn, go outside and look up in the direction of the constellation Orion. No telescope is necessary to see Orionids shooting across the sky. While the meteor count may be lower this year, viewing conditions are favorable, as the gibbous moon will set by 2 a.m. EDT time, permitting good viewing just before dawn when rates will be at their highest.

A live stream of the night sky from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center will be available via Ustream beginning October 21, at 10 p.m. EDT. The live feed is an alternative for stargazers experiencing bad weather or light-polluted night skies. If the weather in Huntsville is clear, Orionids may be seen in the feed as early as 11:30 p.m. EDT, though the hours before dawn should show the most Orionid activity. 

The display will be framed by some of the prettiest stars in the night sky. In addition to Orionids, you'll see the “Dog Star” Sirius, bright winter constellations such as Orion, Gemini, and Taurus, and the planets Jupiter and Venus. Even if the shower is a dud, the rest of the sky is dynamite.

The next meteor shower on deck is the Leonids, with the peak expected from midnight until dawn on Nov. 18.

Last Updated: Aug. 4, 2017
Editor: Tricia Talbert

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