It was 1986 when the last casual observer spotted Halley’s Comet shedding its detritus throughout the heavens far above the Earth. But every year around late October, Earth passes through that trail of space dust and debris left in the comet’s wake. When these bits of matter strike our atmosphere, they burn up, turning into a splendid meteor shower that happens every fall season.
Appearing to emanate from north of the constellation Orion, this particular meteor shower garnered its name: the Orionids. They will peak this year on Oct. 21, but you can catch them until Nov. 22, as Earth traverses that trail of cosmic dust and debris. With the crescent moon now waning (the new moon falls Oct. 25), conditions are ripe for stargazers to catch a glimpse of the Orionids.
How to Spot the Orionids
The meteor shower will be visible in the hours after midnight until dawn—that’s true for every time zone. They can be viewed from both the northern and southern hemispheres, according to NASA. Would-be meteor-gazers should find a spot well away from city street lights. Grab a blanket and lay back in a sleeping bag or lawn chair to take in as much of the sky as possible. Those north of the equator should face southeast, toward the constellation Orion, while those south of the equator should face northeast. In under 30 minutes in the dark, your eyes should adjust, and you will begin to spot meteors. Be patient. There will be plenty of time to catch a glimpse of shooting stars.
The point from which meteors appear to shoot from is called their radiant. In the case of the Orionids, the radiant is located just north of Orion’s bright star, Betelgeuse. One need not look here for meteors, however, as they can appear anywhere across the sky, shooting outward in all directions. It’s wise to look 45 to 90 degrees from the radiant for optimal visibility.
During moonless nights, one can spot as many as 15 to 20 meteors per hour, traveling at blistering speeds of 41 miles (66 kilometers) per second. That’s fast, but these shooting stars often leave trails of incandescent gas, called persistent trains, which make them easier to spot. Sometimes, Orionid meteors explode upon entry into the atmosphere, causing what are spectacularly called fireballs.
The Orionids’ Parent: Halley’s Comet
Comets essentially are amalgams of frozen gas and space dust hurtling through the cosmos, scattering trails of debris in their wake which forms into a vast complex of matter. This can sometimes stretch distances measured in millions of miles. The nucleus of Halley’s Comet consists of a roughly 16 x 8 x 8 kilometer hunk traveling in a retrograde orbit around the sun—meaning it orbits the opposite direction as Earth’s orbit.
Halley’s Comet is actually the parent of two distinct meteor showers in our solar system. The trail of debris left from the comet’s inbound approach toward the sun is where the Orionids come from. The remnants of Halley’s outbound departure causes the Eta Aquarid meteor shower when Earth passes through that region of space every year in May.
Halley’s Comet orbits the sun once every 76 years. Unlike other comets, it wasn’t named after its discoverer; rather, in 1705, a man named Edmond Halley observed that three previous comets appeared every 76 years, and he suggested that these sightings were all, in fact, the same comet. The comet then returned when he predicted it would, and it was named in his honor. Halley’s Comet is perhaps the most famous comet in history, and has been sighted for millennia. It appears in the Bayeux Tapestry which chronicles the Battle of Hastings in 1066. The last time Halley’s Comet was casually sighted from Earth was in 1986. Now, we will have to wait until 2061 for the famed comet’s return.