We are coming up on the peak viewing period for a meteor shower. The Orionid meteor shower occurs every fall as the earth passes through the debris field of Halley’s Comet. The earth entered the debris field around October 2 and will continue through it until November 7. The peak of this meteor shower will be the night of October 21 and early morning hours of October 22. We will be in a second quarter moon at that time, so we may not be able to see some of the fainter meteors, but overall viewing should be good. Around twenty meteors per hour may be visible if the sky is clear.
You may recall that the Orionids have a reputation for unpredictability and occasionally produce several peak viewing periods. They have even produced large fireballs that are visible during the daytime. So you might want to check the sky occasionally over the next week or so.
Meteor showers are produced by comets. Comets are mixtures of ice, rock, and dust. They are often described as dirty snowballs a few miles in diameter. When comets pass near the sun, the heat causes the comet to shed ice and particles. These mostly sand-sized particles form a “debris field” in outer space. When the earth passes through these debris fields, the pieces collide with the atmosphere and become glowing hot. Viewed from earth, they are “falling stars.”
Meteor showers are named for the constellation from which they appear to originate. So the Orionids appear to be radiating out of the constellation Orion. Orion should become visible around 10pm CT. It will travel westward across the sky as the evening progresses.
As you might expect, meteors, or falling stars if you prefer, were viewed very differently by earlier civilizations. To some, they represented benevolent or evil spirits. Others saw the portent of good or bad. Some cultures saw them as babies’ souls traveling from heaven to earth. For others they represented a human death.
So be on the lookout for meteors over the next few weeks. And while you are at it, give some consideration to how earlier civilizations interpreted these celestial travelers.