Home > astronomy > Orionids a highlight of the night sky in mid-October

Orionids a highlight of the night sky in mid-October

If you can get outside and beneath a dark night sky in the wee hours of Sunday morning, the reward might be a chance to see remnants of Halley’s comet.

The annual Orionid meteor shower will peak at 10 pm MDT, but the best viewing of the spectacle will happen in the hours between midnight on Saturday night and dawn on Sunday.

“Halley’s Comet is very much alive and well,” Dr. William J. Cooke, the lead scientist at NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office, said. “Like all comets, it sheds debris as it approaches the Sun. Ice sublimates to gas, which frees bits of rock to escape the comet’s surface and form streams of material in its wake. Over time, some of these particles will collide with Earth and produce the Orion meteor shower we see now.”

Halley’s comet, which has been observed by humans since 240 BC, was last visible in 1986. It won’t be seen again until 2061.

There’s a bonus to staying up late or waking up before dawn, too. You should be able to see Jupiter to the northeast of Orion. The solar system’s largest planet will be brighter than Sirius.

If you are out close to dawn you can look for Venus in the eastern sky. Earth’s neighbor will be even brighter than Jupiter.

One fun way to enjoy the Orionid meteor shower is to locate the region of the heavens that appears to be its source. You don’t have to do this to see the “shooting stars,” though, since they will appear throughout the sky.

If you want to find the constellation that looks like the fountainhead of the meteors, begin by locating Sirius. Sirius is the brightest star in the night sky and will be to the southwest of the meteor shower’s namesake, Orion.

Once you find Orion, locate the three stars in the middle of the image. They make up Orion’s Belt. The meteors will seem to come from the rectangle that surrounds this region of the constellation.

The Orionids are somewhat unusual in that the number of meteors visible each year is fairly constant.

“This is because the Orionid stream is fairly wide (10 million miles or so) and not concentrated like the Leonids or Perseids,” Cooke said. “Because it is wide, the material is more evenly distributed, which explains the steady rates.”

Cooke noted that the rate of meteors can vary by factor of 3.

“The low is 20 per hour, and rates over 60 per hour have also been observed,” he said. “The past few years have seen Orionid rates on the higher side.”

You can continue to see a dwindling array of shooting stars in the early morning sky through Nov. 14. The Orionids start to appear in early October.

The next significant meteor shower happens in December. The Geminids, which peak around Dec. 12, are even more spectacular than the Orionids.

“It has the best rates of any annual shower, usually topping 100 per hour,” Cooke said.

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