Orionid meteors late night until dawn

The Orionid meteor shower will peak early this week, with the best morning likely being Tuesday, October 22. Try watching on the mornings of October 21 and 23, too. In 2019, the moon will be at or just past its last quarter phase at the shower’s peak. That means it’ll be up before dawn, interfering with the best time of night for meteor-watching. Moonlight will surely decrease the numbers of meteors you’ll see in this year’s Orionid shower, but some meteors will be able to overcome the moonlit glare. The moon is waning so, with each passing morning, there’s less moonlight. When to watch? We recommend Tuesday morning, October 22, with the foreknowledge of that bright moon joining you. Try situating yourself in the shadow of a barn or mountain, to keep moonlight from ruining your night vision.

The Orionids start producing meteors at late evening but the number of meteors increases after midnight. Typically, the greatest number of Orionid meteors streak the sky during the few hours before dawn. On a moonless night, you can see as many as 10 to 15 meteors per hour at the Orionids’ peak.

These meteors – vaporizing bits of comet debris from Halley’s Comet – look like streaks of light in the night sky. Many people call them shooting stars.

Will you see any Orionids in the moonlight? We can’t say. We do know that many do catch bright meteors in moonlight, as Eliot Herman in Tucson did earlier this month:

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Round panorama of entire sky with nearly full moon and a short, thin bright streak.

Yes, it’s possible to catch a few meteors even in very bright moonlight, assuming they are bright meteors! Eliot Herman captured this Taurid meteor on October 12, 2019. He wrote: “The nearly full Hunter’s Moon could not suppress this bright Taurid meteor in Tucson, Arizona. Taurids often yield bright meteors.” That is true, and the Orionids tend to produce fewer bright meteors. But the moon is also waning now, and casting less light in the sky than it was on October 12. How many meteors will you see on the mornings of October 21, 22 and 23? The only way to find out is to look! Thanks, Eliot!

The Taurid meteor shower tends to produce many bright fireballs (exceptionally bright meteors). The Orionids tend to be less bright – and thus more easily overwhelmed by moonlight – but the moon isn’t full now as it was in the image above. It’s a waning moon, past last quarter when you see it in the morning sky early in the week. Eliot Herman, a veteran meteor observer, pointed out that some Orionids are very bright. The image below is an exampleof an Orionid fireball, captured in 2017:

Thin, bright, colorful streak above an adobe house, saguaros and mountains in distance.

View larger to see the colors. | Orionid fireball captured at 11:14 p.m. local time in Tucson, Arizona, on October 22, 2017. Eliot Herman described this image as “my fav Orionid photo” and wrote: “Note giant red star Betelgeuse near the radiant and the Belt of Orion further to the right rising above the foothills. The remnant trail persisted for about 50 seconds with the first 14 seconds being quite visible and then remaining faintly visible for the rest of the minute following the fireball.” See Eliot’s all-sky movie of this entire night of meteor-watching in 2017.

Want to know when morning dawn (astronomical twilight) first begins? Visit Sunrise Sunset Calendars and remember to check the astronomical twilight box.

Remember, you don’t need any special equipment to enjoy the show. Find an open sky away from pesky artificial lights, enjoy the comfort of a reclining lawn chair and look upward. Find dark locations at EarthSky’s stargazing page.

Just be sure to give yourself at least 20 minutes for your eyes to adapt to the darkness. And you’ll want at least an hour of viewing time. That’s because meteors often come in spurts, followed by lulls.

Outlined constellation Orion visible behind high, thin clouds.

Orionid meteors radiate from the constellation Orion, shown in this photo from October 2016 by Zefri Besar in Brunei Darussalam.

Where is the radiant point for the Orionid meteor shower? The radiant point for the Orionids is in the northern part of Orion, near Orion’s Club. Many see the Hunter as a large rectangle. You’ll surely notice its distinctive row of three medium-bright stars in the middle: those stars represent Orion’s Belt. The brightest star in the sky, Sirius, is to the southeast of Orion on the sky’s dome, and the Belt stars always point to Sirius. This constellation is up in the southeast in the hours after midnight and it’s high in the south before dawn. We will have much more to say about Orion in the months to come, because it’s one of winter’s most prominent constellations.

Do you need to know Orion to see the meteors? Nah. The meteors appear in all parts of the sky. But if you trace the paths of the meteors backward, you’ll see they all seem to come from this constellation.

How many meteors can you expect to see? The number of meteors you’ll see in any meteor shower always varies greatly depending on when and where you watch. Meteor showers are not entirely predictable. That’s the fun of them! In a dark sky, you might see about 15 meteors per hour, or one meteor every few minutes, during the Orionid peak.

Star chart of constellation Orion with arrow pointing from three stars in a short line to a bright star.

While looking for the Orionid’s radiant point, know that you can extend Orion’s Belt to locate Sirius, the sky’s brightest star.

When should you watch for Orionid meteors? Meteor showers aren’t just one-night events. In fact, they typically last several weeks, as Earth passes through a stream of debris left behind by a comet, in this case, the famous Comet Halley. According to the International Meteor Organization (IMO), the Orionids often exhibit several lesser maxima, so meteor activity may remain more or less constant for several nights in a row, centered on a peak night.

So, before dawn on October 23, the Orionids might match – or nearly match – the numbers before dawn on October 22. The Orionid meteors generally start at late night, or around midnight, and display maximum numbers in the predawn hours. That’s true no matter where you live on Earth, or what time zone you’re in. If you peer in a dark sky between midnight and dawn on October 21 or 22, you’ll likely see some meteors flying. Some might be bright enough to overcome the moonlit glare.

What should you watch for during the Orionid shower? If you’d like to make a new friend, or revisit an old one, enjoy the company of the constellation Orion – the radiant of the Orionid meteor shower – on this dark night. Orion rises in the east at late evening, fairly close to midnight. Surrounding Orion are the bright stars typically associated with winter evenings in the Northern Hemisphere. There are many bright stars in this part of the sky, and they are beautiful and colorful. Want to try to identify some? Your best bet is a planisphere.

Want more about 2019’s Orionid meteor shower? Click here

Thin, very bright streak on left in dark sky, constellation Orion on right with Sirius near horizon.

Possible Orionid meteor moving by the Gemini stars Castor and Pollux. The constellation Orion the Hunter is found at the upper right and the star Sirius below Orion’s Belt. Image via Mike Lewinski.

Bottom line: The last quarter moon interferes somewhat with the 2019 Orionid meteor shower. Watch shortly before dawn. Try watching on the mornings of October 21, 22 and 23. A dark sky is always best. Have fun!

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Bruce McClure