Orionid Meteors

StarDate: October 20, 2009

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An autumn meteor shower lights up the skies the next night or two. And there's no Moon to get in the way, so this should be a pretty good year for it.

This is the Orionid shower. It's named for the constellation Orion because its meteors all appear to stream into the sky from that direction. But they can streak across just about any part of the sky, so you don't need to look at Orion to see his "shooting stars."

Over the last few years, the Orionids have been a little better than average. That's because the shower's source isn't smooth -- it's clumpy.

The meteors are bits of debris from Halley's Comet. As the comet orbits the Sun, it sheds bits of rock and dust. These particles spread out along the comet's orbit. As Earth flies through this path, some of the debris zips into our atmosphere at many thousands of miles an hour. The particles vaporize, forming glowing streaks of light high in the sky.

But the debris sometimes forms dense knots. When we fly through one of these knots, the number of meteors goes up. It's not easy to predict when we'll hit one, though, so we can't be sure if the Orionids will be above average this year, or just average.

Either way, with no moonlight to overpower the faint meteors, it should be a good show. Find a safe, dark skywatching site, far from city lights. If you live in a cooler climate, take along a blanket to ward off the autumn chill. Then enjoy the autumn lightshow -- courtesy of Halley's Comet.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2009

For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.

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