Halley's Comet is probably the most famous clump of ice, rock and dust in the solar system. It was last seen in 1986 and is not due back in the solar system until 2061 — but you can see bits of it for the whole of October and into November each year as spectacular shooting stars.
With Earth now traveling through a huge trail of debris left by Halley's Comet – which burn up as meteors as they pass into Earth's atmosphere – get ready to see the awesome Orionid meteor shower.
What date and time is the Orionid Meteor Shower?
In 2017, the Orionid meteor shower stretches from October 2 to November 7. The peak night for activity is Saturday, October 21, into the early hours of Sunday, October 22. That's the night to aim for, although the few days either side are also good.
The best time to see shooting stars is always after midnight, because that's when you are on the night side of Earth as it travels head-on through the remains of Halley's Comet, causing mesmerizing meteors in the sky. By lucky chance, there's a new moon just two days before the peak of the Orionid meteor shower, so a small crescent moon will have already set by midnight. You should expect to see around 20 shooting stars per hour.
Where can you see the Orionid meteor shower?
Seeing a shooting star during the Orionid meteor shower is easy. Most people know how to find the constellation Orion, with its most famous section being three stars – Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka – that form Orion's Belt.
The radiant point of the Orionid meteor shower is close to Betelgeuse, a red supergiant star above Orion's belt. Although shooting stars can appear anywhere in the night sky, they will appear to come from this point, and if you are very lucky, you will see a shooting star streak across the Orion constellation itself.
How to view the Orionid meteor shower
The timing is very good in 2017: The Orionid meteor shower takes place in the fall during typically warm temperatures in the northern hemisphere, so it's a relatively easy event to observe.
You don't need any special equipment to see shooting stars during the Orionid meteor shower. In fact, it's important to avoid using optical aids like telescopes and binoculars, because you want as wide a view of the heavens as possible. Perhaps the most important thing to remember is to avoid looking at your smartphone. Not only will it take your gaze away from the night sky (shooting stars are fleeting and only last a split second), but the white light emitted by the screen will destroy your night vision, something that will take 20 minutes of darkness to restore.
It's really important to preserve your night vision because you'll more easily see shooting stars, and they will appear brighter to you. Take a lawn chair or a sun-bed to make the spectacle easier on your neck muscles, and make sure you have warm clothing. Plan on observing session of at least 30 to 60 minutes.
Another way of making sure the Orionid meteor shower is as bright as it can be is to move away from light-polluted cities and into dark country skies. There is no hard and fast rule here, but generally if you get around 40 miles from a major town or city, visiting stars will be much brighter.
Where can I live stream the Orionid Meteor Shower?
If you can't make it to a dark sky destination, Slooh.com will be live streaming the peak of the Orionid meteor shower on October 21 and into October 22. The images will come from Slooh's low light cameras at the Institute of Astrophysics of the Canary Islands in Tenerife's Teide National Park, one of the world's darkest places.
What’s the difference between a meteor vs. comet vs. shooting star?
In space, terminology often has much to do with size. A comet is a snowball containing dust, gas and rock that orbits the sun, occasionally coming into the solar system. When it does, the sun's radiation causes the comet to shed some of this matter as rock particles and dust.
If the rock is about 10 meters in diameter, it's called an asteroid, and if it's smaller is called a meteoroid. When meteoroids burn up in the Earth's atmosphere, they become meteors — otherwise known as shooting stars.