Enjoying EarthSky? Subscribe.

120,359 subscribers and counting ...

Orionid meteor shower on night of October 20-21

Halley's Comet at its 1910 visit.  The famous astronomer Edward Emerson Barnard at Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin took this photo.

Tonight for October 20, 2014

Fortunately, the thin waning crescent moon rising shortly before sunrise won't intrude on this year's Orionid meteor shower.

Fortunately, the thin waning crescent moon rising shortly before sunrise won’t intrude on the 2014 Orionid meteor shower.

The Orionids radiate from a point near the upraised Club of the constellation Orion the Hunter.  The bright star near the radiant point is Betelgeuse.

The Orionids radiate from a point near the upraised Club of the constellation Orion the Hunter. The bright star near the radiant point is Betelgeuse.

Tonight … October 20, 2014 … is the best time for watching the annual Orionid meteor shower. And an awesome shower it is! For one thing, it stems from debris from the most famous of all comets, Comet Halley. In fact, the object in the picture at the top of this isn’t a meteor. It’s Comet Halley itself at its 1910 visit. The comet last visited Earth in 1986 and will return next in 2061. Debris in the orbit of this comet – the Orionid meteor stream – is now encountering Earth’s atmosphere. The meteors will become visible in their greatest numbers tonight, and especially in the dark hours before dawn tomorrow morning (October 21). At the peak, from a dark site, you might expect to see about 25 meteors per hour.

The meteors – vaporizing bits of comet ice and dust – will look like streaks of light in the night sky. They’re sometimes called shooting stars.

As is standard for most meteor showers, the best time to watch this shower will be between the hours of midnight and dawn – regardless of your time zone.

Fortunately, in 2014, the slim waning crescent moon rising shortly before sunrise is not in the way and will only enhance your enjoyment of the meteor shower if you find yourself out before dawn. Good chance that you’ll see earthshine on the night side of the moon. Also, before dawn, look for Sirius, the sky’s brightest star. And the planet Jupiter is also very bright – brighter than Sirius – and visible high in the sky before dawn.

North Americans see partial solar eclipse on October 23

Donate: Your support means the world to us

Photo from Goldpaint Photography of the 2011 Orionid meteor shower at Middle Falls, near Mount Shasta, California. It’s a composite consisting of every meteor captured during the night and includes the Milky Way crashing into the illuminated falls. The image was Grand Prize Winner of Outdoor Photographer Magazine’s 3rd Annual Great Outdoors Photography Contest and published in their July 2012 issue. Notice there is more than one shower happening here. More from Goldpaint Photography here.

As Comet Halley moves through space, it leaves debris in its wake that strikes Earth’s atmosphere most fully around October 20-22, every year. The comet is nowhere near, but, around this time every year, Earth is more or less intersecting the comet’s orbit.

If the meteors originate from Comet Halley, why are they called the Orionids? The answer is that 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 Orionids.

Even one meteor can be a thrill. Bring along a blanket or lawn chair – after midnight or before dawn – and lie back comfortably while gazing upward. Although a somewhat modest shower, these swift-moving meteors are sometimes bright, occasionally leaving a persistent train – a glowing streak that lingers momentarily after the meteor has gone!

Bottom line: Best night for the Orionid meteor shower in 2014 is October 20, and especially between midnight and dawn on October 21. Expect to see about 25 meteors per hour from a dark site.

Photo top of post: Halley’s Comet at its 1910 visit, by Edward Emerson Barnard at Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin.

EarthSky’s meteor guide for 2014

How high up are meteors?

How do astronomers predict meteor showers?

EarthSky lunar calendars are cool! They make great gifts. Order now. Supplies limited.