If you're looking for a way to top off your weekend, try heading outside tonight after sunset, find a nice dark place to sit down under the stars and enjoy the show as the peak of the Orionid meteor shower lights up the night sky.
Halley's Comet is probably the most famous comet in history, but since it only swings by us once every 76 years, it might be easy for it to slip from our minds. However, every year in-between visits we get two reminders of it, just so we don't forget. The first was back in April/May — the Eta Aquariid meteor shower — and tonight, Oct. 20, is the peak of the second — the Orionid meteor shower. The meteors that streak across the sky at these times of the year are caused as Earth passes through a trail of dust and ice crystals left behind by Halley as it swings through the inner solar system.
The people of Science@NASA put together a great video last year that gives an excellent overview of the Orionids:
There are some important differences between this year and last year, though. Although last year had ideal viewing conditions because of the new moon, this year a nearly full moon shines in the sky all night long. That will spoil the show a bit, as any bright source of light will keep our eyes from adjusting fully to the dark, so we won't be able to pick up the faintest of the meteors. Also, the triangle of Venus, Jupiter and Sirius won't be framing the meteor shower this year, but instead it will be Jupiter, Sirius and the moon.
Under ideal viewing conditions — a relatively clear sky and no nearby sources of light pollution — we can expect to see between 15-20 meteors per hour.
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One interesting thing to note about the Orionid meteor shower is that, even though it's only one of two meteor showers caused by Halley's Comet, the Orionid meteors are from dust and ice crystals left behind much more recently than the Eta Aquariids. Halley's orbit has shifted over the centuries and the material we pass through in April/May was left behind long ago.
The best time to get out to see the meteors? Orion rises around 11 p.m., no matter where you live, and stays up until after dawn. Rather than staying up late tonight and possibly losing sleep for work tomorrow, try getting to bed early tonight and getting up in the hours before sunrise to watch the show. If you can't manage to get out to see it, you can check it out on the Slooh Space Camera website starting at 5 p.m., EDT.
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