Will you be alive in 2061? If not, your only chance to see something of Halley’s Comet comes in both early May and late October each year when Earth moves through streams of particles the great comet deposited in the solar system in 1986.
As those particles hit Earth’s atmosphere they energise and glow for a millisecond, something that happens as many as 40 times per hour to create a meteor shower. That’s what is happening on Monday/Tuesday as the Orionid meteor shower peaks after midnight.
What has Orion got to do with this meteor shower?
Technically speaking, nothing whatsoever. The Orionid meteor shower gets its name from the constellation its shooting stars appear to come from—Orion the Hunter. Astronomers call this the “radiant point”, which more precisely is close to an open cluster of stars called Collinder 69. A lovely sight though binoculars and easy to see with the naked eye from a dark sky site, Collinder 69 can be found just above Orion the Hunter’s head. However, just look in the general direction of Orion’s Belt and you’ll see any shooting stars from the Orionid meteor shower.
When, where and how to see the Orionids?
Although it runs from October 2 through November 7, the night to watch for shooting stars from the Orionid meteor shower is Monday through Tuesday, October 21 and 22, 2019. The best time will be after midnight when your location will be on the nightside of Earth. A lawn chair or deckchair is perfect for watching meteor showers, though the best advice is always to wrap up warm and let you eyes adjust to the dark and just watch the night sky (in this case, look generally southeast towards Orion). Whatever you do don’t stop looking, and absolutely do not look at your smartphone. Its white light will instantly kill your night vision.
Visible from both hemispheres, the Orionids—and any moonless meteor shower—is best enjoyed under a dark country sky. If that’s not going to be possible, make sure there are no artificial lights in your line of sight, and even better, find a place in shadow from any artificial lights.
How to find a dark sky
About 40km from a town is where to go. Here are some great resources to help you find a dark sky near you:
- International Dark Sky Parks (International)
- Dark Sky Preserves (Canada)
- Dark Sky Discovery Sites (U.K.)
- Dark Sky Finder
- Light Pollution Map
What is Halley’s Comet?
Every 75 years a 15x8km comet enters the solar system and becomes visible to the naked eye from Earth. The only known short-period comet that can be seen twice in one lifetime (if observed when very young), its arrival was first predicted by British astronomer Edmond Halley, who calculated that it would appear in 1758. It duly did, though 16 years after his death. Halley also discovered that transits of Mercury and Venus across the sun could be used to calculate the size of the solar system.
When is the Halley’s Comet meteor shower in May?
That would be the Eta Aquarids, a meteor shower that will peak on May 5/6 in 2020, though it’s not as dependable a meteor shower as the Orionids.
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.