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Look Up: The Orionid Meteor Shower Will Streak Through Skies This Weekend

Bits of Halley’s Comet are raining down on Earth, and the show will peak in the wee hours of Saturday morning

An Orionid meteor (Brocken Inaglory/Wikimedia Commons)
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If you are lucky enough to have clear skies this weekend, make sure to step outside and look up in the evening. As Deborah Byrd at EarthSky reports, the annual Orionid meteor shower will peak over the weekend, producing 10 to 20 meteors per hour.

As Byrd reports, the Orionids occur each year between October 2 and November 7 as the Earth passes through the debris field left by a comet. The meteorites originate or radiate from a point just next to constellation Orion, hence the name Orionids. The bright streaks should appear near the Hunter’s upraised club and above Betelgeuse, the second brightest spot in the group.

While the Orionids aren't the brightest or most numerous meteors, this year the shower's peak coincides with a mostly moonless morning, making for good viewing. The peak of activity will be on the morning of October 21, from 2 A.M. local time until dawn, though the show should still be going strong the next morning and will continue to be visible until October 26.

Though not the showiest shower, skygazers have an affection for this particular event for another reason, reports Doyle Rice at USA Today. “The Orionids are popular among stargazers because all of its individual shooting stars are fragments of the most famous comet of all time, Halley's Comet,” says Bob Berman of the online space telescope Slooh, which will livestream the show beginning tonight.

Halley’s Comet is the legendary space rock that appears above Earth every 75 years, and was previously observed by ancient Chinese astronomers, Greek observers and Renaissance painters. The comet will next buzz by Earth in 2061, but the Orionids, along with the Eta Aquarid meteor shower in May (which is best viewed in the southern hemisphere), are annual reminders that Halley's comet will one day return.

Joe Rao at Space.com reports that the Orionids are among the fastest of the annual meteor showers, with the bits of space dust burning up in the atmosphere at 41 miles per second. That makes them fast and faint, though they do leave glowing trails behind them. That also makes them hard to see from well-lit urban areas, so finding a dark area away from light pollution is key to seeing the Orionids.

As Rice reports, skies are supposed to be clear on the east coast and northeast as well in the southwest. Viewing should be fair in the central and southern U.S., though parts of the upper Midwest are likely to miss out and the Pacific Northwest should plan to just stay inside this weekend and binge on Netflix.

If you miss out on the Orionids, there’s still a few chance to wish upon a star this year. The Leonid shower, which will take place November 17 and 18, should be great since it is taking place on a moonless night. Occasionally, that shower has produced a thousand falling stars per minute, though on average watchers usually only see 10 to 15 streaks per hour. The Geminids, which peak on December 13 and 14, could produce up to 50 meteors per hour.  

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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