A well-known meteor shower should be at its best late tonight. Unfortunately “best” doesn’t mean “great.” The shower is declining, so it doesn’t produce many meteors. And to make matters worse, the Moon will be in the sky for most of the night, drowning out all but the brightest of the “shooting stars.”
This is known as the Orionid shower. That’s because all the meteors appear to “rain” into the atmosphere from a corner of Orion, the hunter. The constellation climbs into view in the wee hours of the morning, so that’s when the shower is at its best — between midnight and dawn.
The meteors are bits of debris from Comet Halley. The comet sheds grains of dust as it orbits the Sun. When Earth crosses the comet’s path, some of those grains plunge into the atmosphere at high speeds. They instantly heat to thousands of degrees. They vaporize, creating the streaks of light known as meteors.
Most of the dust grains are quite small. But a few are a little bigger — the size of a small rock or larger. They form brilliant streaks that are visible even in a bright sky.
That’s especially good this year, because the Moon was full just a couple of days ago. It’s still big and bright, so it fills the sky with light during the shower’s peak.
To give the shower a try, find a dark but safe skywatching site far from city lights. Bundle up against the autumn chill, then sit back and watch the sparks from Comet Halley.
More about the Moon and a bright star tomorrow.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2013
For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.