The annual Orionid meteor shower is coming. This shower is expected to rain down its greatest number of meteors before dawn on Friday, October 21, or Saturday, October 22. The rather wide waning crescent moon will interfere, but if you're out on those mornings you might see some meteors!
Watch for the Orionids between midnight and dawn
As usual, the best time to watch the Orionid meteor shower will be between the hours of midnight and dawn. Keep in mind that the moon is waning – or getting smaller by the day. You'll see a smaller moon on Saturday morning than on Friday morning, for example. It's possible that will mean you'll see more meteors on Saturday morning, but, as always, you never know.
You might see some meteors on either side of the peak mornings, too, or during this week leading up to the peak.
Although we hear lots of reports from people who see meteor showers from yards, decks, streets and especially highways in and around cities, the best place to watch a meteor shower is always in the country.
Where do I look to see the Orionids?
Meteors in annual showers are named for the point in our sky from which they appear to radiate. The radiant point for the Orionids is in the direction of the constellation Orion the Hunter. Hence the name is Orionids.
If you trace the paths of these Orionid meteors backward, they do seem to stream from the constellation Orion. But you don't need to know this constellation to see the meteors. The meteors often don't become visible until they are 30 degrees or so from their radiant point – and remember, they are streaking out from the radiant in all directions. So the meteors will appear in all parts of the sky.
That's why it's best to find a wide-open viewing area than to look in any particular direction. Sometimes friends like to watch together, facing different directions. When somebody sees one, they can call out "Meteor!"
How many Orionid meteors will I see?
The word shower might give you the idea of a rain shower. But few meteor showers resemble showers of rain.
Orionid meteors are known to be fast and usually on the faint side. But the Orionids can sometimes surprise you with an exceptionally bright meteor – one that would be visible, even in moonlight – that might break up into fragments.
For many meteor observers … even one meteor can be a thrill. But you might want to observe for an hour or more, and in that case the trick is to find a place to observe in the country. Bring along a blanket or lawn chair and lie back comfortably while gazing upward.
What are meteors?
Meteors are fancifully called shooting stars. They aren't really stars. They're space debris burning up in the Earth's atmosphere.
The Orionid meteors are debris left behind by Comet Halley. The object at left isn't a meteor. It's that most famous of all comets – Comet Halley – which last visited Earth in 1986. This comet leaves debris in its wake that strikes Earth's atmosphere most fully around October 20-22, while Earth intersects the comet's orbit, as it does every year at this time.
Particles shed by the comet slam into our upper atmosphere, where they vaporize at some 100 kilometers – 60 miles – above the Earth's surface.
The Orionids are extremely fast meteors, plummeting into the Earth's atmosphere at about 66 kilometers – 41 miles – per second. Maybe half of the Orionid meteors leave persistent trains – ionized gas trails that last for a few seconds after the meteor itself has gone.