Celestial News: Catch October’s Orionid meteors | SteamboatToday.com

Celestial News: Catch October’s Orionid meteors

Each time Halley’s Comet comes around the sun, it sheds millions of tiny dust particles. Every October, Earth plows into some of these dust particles, producing our annual Orionid meteor shower. This image of Halley’s Comet was taken during its most recent visit, on March 17, 1986, from Brasstown Bald Mountain in north Georgia. This month’s Orionid meteor shower will peak on the night of Oct. 21 and the morning of Oct. 22.
Photo courtesy of Jimmy Westlake

Did you see Halley’s Comet when it sailed past Earth in 1985-86? If you missed it, you’ll have to wait until 2061-62 for another chance, because Halley’s Comet only comes around these parts once every 76 years.

In the meantime, you can watch tiny pieces of Halley’s Comet rain down into the Earth’s atmosphere this month during our annual Orionid meteor shower. 

Comets are like big, dirty snowballs, more than anything else, that hover near the outer edges of the solar system in perpetual cold and dark. But, every so often, the gravity of the sun tugs a comet into the warm inner regions of the solar system. As the snowball approaches the sun, the solar heat vaporizes the top layers of ice, releasing clouds of steam and millions of tiny dust grains that were trapped in the ice.

The combined pressures of sunlight and the solar wind blow the gaseous vapors away from the snowball, forming the comet’s graceful, flowing tail. After a comet has made numerous trips around the sun, its orbit can fill up with dusty debris, like a river of dust particles in space. 

The Earth crosses Halley’s Comet’s dusty wake twice each year, once in early May and again in mid-October. When one of these dust particles plows into the Earth’s upper atmosphere at nearly 150,000 mph, it burns up in a brief but brilliant flash of light, called a meteor. Cometary dust grains are so small that you easily could hold 1,000 of them in the cupped palm of your hand. 

The October meteors that Halley’s Comet sends our way are called Orionid meteors because they appear to fan out from a point in the sky near the familiar winter star pattern of Orion the Hunter.

This October’s Orionid meteor shower will peak on the night of Oct. 21. Near the peak, a single observer under dark, clear skies can expect to see about 20 Orionid meteors each hour, so, about one every three minutes. The third quarter moon will be shining in the sky near Orion but shouldn’t interfere too much with meteor watching.

Orion doesn’t rise above our eastern horizon until about 11 p.m. in mid-October, so don’t expect to see very many meteors before midnight.

Orionid meteors will appear in every part of the sky, but they will all trace back to a common origin near the bright star Betelgeuse, the star marking Orion’s left shoulder, high up in the southeastern sky by 4 a.m. The closer to dawn you watch, the more meteors you are likely to see. This is because the Earth rotates us more in the direction of Orion as we approach sunrise. 

Although the peak of the meteor activity occurs on the night of Oct. 21 and morning of Oct. 22, you also might see a few Orionid meteors zipping across the sky before dawn on the mornings of Oct. 20 and 23, as well.

Jimmy Westlake retired from full-time teaching at Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs in 2017 after 19 years as their professor of physical sciences. His “Celestial News” column appears monthly in the Steamboat Pilot & Today newspaper. Check out Westlake’s astrophotography website at jwestlake.com.

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