Shooting Stars: Orionids

Shooting Stars: OrionidsOf all the wonders the sky has to offer there is nothing quite like seeing a shooting star.  That is why catching a meteor shower at its peak can be a magical experience.  The rarity of seeing the sky light up makes it even more significant.  Thankfully, there is one meteor shower that returns annually and can be seen from all parts of the world.  At the end of October, the Earth is treated to a show that even NASA describes as “one of the most beautiful showers of the year.”  Framed by some of the brightest stars in the sky, the Orionids are a sight you will not want to miss.


The Orionids are unique for many reasons, including their origin.  The annual meteor shower is created by one of the most famous comets in history, Halley.  As Halley’s comet makes it returns pass-by of Earth every 75-76 years its nucleus leaves a trail of ice and dust.  As Earth reaches its rotation near the end of October, it passes through this cloud of debris.  The dust falls through the atmosphere creating the Orionids, and May’s Eta Aquarids. Halley was last seen from Earth in 1986 and is not expected again until the year 2061.


The location from where the meteors appear to come from – also known as a radiant – is the Orion constellation.  To help viewers locate a meteor shower, they are typically named after where they can be viewed from, thus the name Orionids.  Beyond Orion, the meteors are also met with a backdrop of other constellations including Gemini.  Though, it is recommended not to view directly at a meteor shower’s radiant. Watching into the radiant will make the meteors seem short, an effect known as foreshortening.  Instead, it is ideal to look 45 to 90 degrees away from the radiant.


Meteors travel to Earth as fast as 148,000 mph, which means it is pretty spectacular that we can see them at all.  Some of the faster pieces of space dust will leave a trail of glowing debris known as a train.  Even further, some will become a fireball which can be seen as a prolonged explosion of light.


One of the amazing parts about the Orionids is that they can be viewed from the Northern and Southern hemispheres.  It is best to view a meteor shower in an area without much light pollution, preferably outside of the city.  Often the best times for viewing are after dusk or just before dawn, and if it is a moonless night, all the better.  Prepare for the evening by bringing warm clothes, a sleeping bag, a lawn chair, and snacks.  It is recommended that you watch laying down on the ground facing the southeast if you are in the Northern hemisphere, northeast if you are in the south.  It may take your eyes as long as 30 minutes to adapt to the dark for best viewing pleasure.  It is also a good idea to check ahead for the best nights to catch the Orionids, and weather conditions as a cloudy night will block most of the sights.


In some years, the Orionids have produced as many as 50 – 70 viewable meteors per hour at peak times.  Though, this is not always typical with 2017 averaging around 10 – 20 meteors per hour. At the end of October every year, amateur and professional astrologers join the stargazers to witness the fantastic show.  So, get out there and look just north of the star Betelgeuse – the brightest star in the Orion constellation – and you will hopefully catch some beautiful sights.