The Orionid meteor shower started on October 17th as the Earth passed through the debris-laden path of a comet. But it’s not just any comet. It’s the most famous comet of all time – Halley’s Comet.
Grab a jacket and head outside, the Orionid meteor shower is set to peak late tonight and early tomorrow morning.
When should I look up?
You’re going to want to wait until about 11 p.m. EST before you go outside. This is for two reasons. One, the Orionids will originate out of the Orion constellation. We need that to rise first. And two, the moon will have set (or be close to setting) by then. That will help improve viewing conditions. For the best chance of seeing several Orionids, set your clock a few hours before sunrise and look towards Orion.
As for weather? Folks in the South, upper Midwest and portions of the West should have clear viewing conditions. Those of you living in the Northeast (New York and further north), Midwest (Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado and New Mexico) and Northwest (Oregon and Washington) will have to contend with clouds and rain. Here’s a handy map from Accuweather showing where visibility is best.
The Orionid meteor shower is named after its radiant (point in the sky where the meteors originate). In this case, it’s the constellation Orion.
Orion won’t be above the horizon until around 11 p.m. EST. A few hours before sunrise is perfect because the Orion constellation will be higher in the sky. Spotting Orion is a breeze. Look southeast and for Orion’s belt.
If you have a pair of binoculars or a telescope take a peek at Orion’s nebula while you’re at it. It’s one of the most stunning views for any stargazer. If you venture outside just before sunrise, check out Venus, Jupiter and Mars.
This year’s Orionids might not be the best. NASA’s Bill Cooke says, “the Orionids will probably show weaker activity than usual this year.” He added, “bits of comet dust hitting the atmosphere will probably give us about a dozen meteors per hour.”
What should I know about the Orionids?
Our planet is cruising through the debris tail of Halley’s Comet. While it doesn’t contain as many meteors as the Perseids, the Orionids are favorite for skygazers just because of the comet responsible for them.
Halley’s Comet has been a fixture for astronomers on Earth for at least 2,000 years. The earliest observations that were recorded by astronomers date back to at least 240 BC. Astronomers spanning much of the ancient world, from China to Europe and the Middle East chronicled their sightings of the comet. They didn’t know it at the time, but they were seeing the same comet every 75 years or so.
In 1705, the comet’s namesake, Edmund Halley, published a book titled Synopsis Astronomia Cometicae. In it included calculations and his belief that four comet sightings spanning the mid-1400s to the late 1600s were the same comet. He predicted the comet would return in 1758. He never lived to see it (Halley died in 1742), but when the comet showed up in 1758 – it became known as Halley’s Comet.