Remember Halley's Comet? It's Causing a Meteor Shower — and This Week Is the Best Time to See the Shooting Stars
The remains of the solar system’s most famous visiting comet will light up the night skies during October when the Orionid meteor shower sees dust and debris strike the Earth’s atmosphere. Visible from anywhere on the planet between midnight and dawn near the constellation of Orion the Hunter, this year’s peak night will be marred by strong moonlight, so it’s best viewed on or around Tuesday, Oct. 16.
When is the Orionid meteor shower in 2018?
Usually, it’s worth waiting for a meteor shower to peak before going outside, but this year’s Orionid meteor shower will be best viewed early. Although the peak night is on Sunday, Oct. 21 and into the early hours of Monday, the Orionid meteor shower actually began on Oct. 2 and doesn’t cease until Nov. 7. So why avoid the peak night on Oct. 21? It’s very close to the full moon on Oct. 24, which means there will be a lot of natural light pollution.
However, that doesn’t mean you can’t see the Orionid meteor shower this year.
How to see the Orionid meteor shower
No special equipment is needed, just good timing. (In fact, a telescope will massively limit your chances of seeing shooting stars.) The peak night might be ruined by the full moon, but with some careful planning, it will be possible to see the Orionid meteor shower in most of its glory. If you get outside just before midnight on Oct. 16, around about the same time a 50-percent-lit first quarter moon sets, you should have a dark enough sky to enjoy around 15-20 shooting stars per hour between midnight and sunrise.
When is the best time to see shooting stars?
The week beginning Oct. 15, 2018, is a great time for stargazing with a chance of shooting stars. To maximize your chances, stay away from strong light pollution, such as streetlights, and wait for 20 minutes until your eyes get used to the dark. Resist the temptation to look at your smartphone because its white light will instantly destroy your night vision.
What causes the Orionid meteor shower?
It’s none other than Halley’s Comet, officially called Comet 1P/Halley and surely the most famous comet of all. It was last in the solar system in 1986, when it left a stream of dust and debris on its way towards, and then away, from the Sun. One caused the Orionids, and another the Eta Aquarids, which will next peak on May 5-6, 2019. The shooting stars themselves are caused by tiny particles being struck by Earth’s atmosphere. As that happens, the particles burn up and glow for a split second. Halley’s Comet will return to the solar system in the year 2061.
Where and when to look for shooting stars
Since the constellation of Orion will be due south around 2 a.m during mid-October 2018, that’s roughly when and where to look for shooting stars since that’s the time Earth is meeting the debris stream head-on. However, that’s very general advice because the shooting stars can appear anywhere in the night sky. In fact, if you do see them near Orion, they are likely to be rather faint. So watching before midnight is fine.
Where do the Orionids come from?
All meteor showers have what astronomers call a radiant point, a location in the night sky where the shooting stars appear to be traveling from. In the case of the Orionid meteor shower, the radiant point is obviously in the constellation of Orion, which is rising in the east in the evenings during October. However, the radiant point is not near the three stars that make the famous Orion’s Belt, but near the famous star Betelgeuse just above. You can’t miss it; this massive red supergiant star’s color is a giveaway.