Raleigh, N.C. — The Orionid meteor shower will peak overnight, and your best opportunity to see meteors comes before dawn Sunday morning when an astonishing 15-20 meteors per hour are forecasted to be visible under the best viewing conditions (away from light pollution).
These meteors are caused by debris left behind by Halley’s Comet’s burning up in the atmosphere as Earth passes through the trail. Estimating exactly how many meteors we might see is as tough as forecasting exactly when and where a summer thunderstorm might hit.
There are many trails left by Halley’s and other comets. These trails get pushed and pulled, especially by Jupiter’s gravity. According to Bill Cooke of NASA’s Micrometeorite Office at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., Orionid activity has been trending upward recently, but an outburst like this was not expected.
Viewing conditions are favorable this year, and the nearly moonless sky will help bring a few more meteors into view. Unlike most showers, Orionid activity does not peak sharply. If you aren’t up at 5 a.m. on Sunday, you still have the opportunity to see 10-15 meteors per hour over the next morning or two. Orionids may be visible in smaller numbers throughout the week.
The Orionids are one of four minor meteor showers underway this weekend, though the Southern Taurids, Epsilon Geminids, and Leonis Minorids are all near the end of their periods and produce single digit meteor rates.
This reinforces the advice seasoned meteor observers give during each meteor shower — don’t just look to the radiant point (in this case the constellation Orion) for meteors. Look anywhere in the sky, preferably away from light pollution.
The next major meteor shower, with up to 120 meteors per hour visible, arrives in December. The Geminids peak on Dec. 13, a few days after the new moon, which should provide great conditions for observing.
Watch a live stream of the meteor shower from the Marshall Space Flight Center.
Tony Rice is a volunteer in the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador program and software engineer at Cisco Systems. You can follow him on twitter @rtphokie.