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Halley’s Comet won’t return to the inner solar system for almost half a century. But it makes its presence known at this time of year with a meteor shower. The shower isn’t named for the comet, though, but for the region of the sky in which the meteors appear to “rain” into the atmosphere — the constellation Orion.
A meteor shower takes place when Earth flies through the path of a comet, which is a big ball of frozen water and gases mixed with bits of rock and dirt. As the comet gets close to the Sun, some of the ices vaporize, releasing some of the solid particles. Over time, these bits of dust spread out along the comet’s path.
Halley has made a lot of trips around the Sun, so it’s shed a lot of debris, which has spread out all along its orbit. Earth flies through this path every October. As the particles of comet dust hit the atmosphere they vaporize, forming the glowing streaks known as meteors.
The Orionids are pretty reliable, although not usually spectacular. At their peak, they produce a couple of dozen meteors per hour.
This year’s shower should be at its best late tonight. Unfortunately, the Moon rises around midnight, so it’ll cast its glow in the sky during the shower’s peak. And the Moon will be quite close to Orion, making things even worse.
The best chance to see the meteors is to get away from city lights, and hope for some bright ones to puncture the sky — some bright “calling cards” of Halley’s Comet.