Searching for a fun thing to do this weekend? How about looking up! The Orionid meteor shower peaks over the next few days, unleashing as many as 15 to 20 meteors an hour under dark, clear skies.
This year’s show will be a little trickier to catch, thanks to a waxing gibbous moon. That will outshine many of the fainter meteors, but with a little bit of patience you’ve still got a good shot at snagging some shooting stars. The display will begin to taper down by Sunday.
In the nation’s capital, the predawn hours of Saturday morning may be the best time to look — after the moon sets at 3:05 a.m. and before the sky brightens before sunup. However, clouds and showers from a passing cold front could spoil the show. The weather may be an issue from the Eastern Seaboard to the Midwest, but the Rockies will enjoy perfect stargazing conditions.
The best viewing will be after midnight and before local sunrise, when the constellation Orion is high in the southeast sky. While the meteors will appear to radiate from that point, there’s no need to stare at one location. There will be an equal distribution of shooting stars across the sky.
In fact, it’s best not to look solely at the radiant. That’s because meteors coming from that direction strike the atmosphere nearly head-on and subsequently appear to have shorter, dimmer tails. The ones that leave the best, longest strip of colors are those that skip through the atmosphere at an angle. The secret is finding a dark area away from city lights and giving yourself long enough for your eyes to adjust.
Meteor showers result when Earth passes through a stream of debris left behind by a comet, asteroid or other piece of junk flying around in space. When our planet plows through them, they become trapped in our gravitational field and burn in the upper atmosphere. It’s just like bugs spattering off the windshield of your car on a warm summer day — they leave a streak of color where they hit.
When it comes to a shooting star, that trail of light is courtesy of metallic compounds in the space rock being vaporized. The friction the meteor encounters because of air drag high in the sky generates an enormous amount of heat, and POOF! The debris disappears, combusting in a colorful burst of light.
But where does this debris come from? In the case of the Orionids, the answer might have you thinking back to 1986: Halley’s comet.
Returning every 76 years, Halley’s comet made its last appearance when Reagan was in the White House, the average cost of a new home was $89,430, and Oprah Winfrey was debuting the first episode of her soon-to-be hit show. The comet won’t be back until 2061. But even though Halley’s comet is gone, it certainly isn’t forgotten.
We’re reminded of it every spring and fall, when rice-grain-size bits of material from the seven-mile-wide ball of ice and dust light up the skies. That clustering of interstellar pebbles contributes to the Eta Aquarid meteor shower every spring and is the main source that touches off the Orionids every fall.
Every meteor shower has its own character, and the Orionids are no exception. Blink and you’ll miss it, because this shower’s shooting stars are fast — traveling more than 40 miles per second! While they won’t last more than a split second, their speed will boost their brightness. A luminous trail of excited gas and smoky dust may linger in the wake of a meteor for a few seconds.
And if you miss this one, don’t fret! A much more prolific meteor shower — the Geminids — is coming the second week of December.