The Orionids are one of stargazers’ favorite meteor showers of the year.
Bright, fast-moving and this year most numerous in precious moonless night skies, the Orionid meteor shower is often a spectacular albeit less than prolific display of shooting stars.
If the skies are clear where you are on the stroke of midnight on Thursday/Friday, October 20/21 it will be worth you spending an hour outdoors wherever you are. Partly for the 10-40 sometimes particularly bright shooting stars, but equally for the bright stars rising at the Orionids’ epicenter.
The Orionid meteor shower is caused by dust and debris being left in the inner Solar System by none other than Halley’s Comet. As Orionid meteors zip across the night sky at 148,000 mph they sometimes leave bright trails behind them.
They appear to come from the constellation of Orion, which by midnight will be is rising in the east.
To stargazers the return of Orion to the night sky is a special time—and the Orionid meteor shower is the perfect excuse to study this mother of all constellations. Containing some of the very brightest stars in the night sky, Orion’s unmistakable Belt is just one of the key sights.
Here’s a tour of the iconic constellation so you can star-spot while you wait for meteors:
- Find the iconic line of three massive, blue supergiant stars in the “Belt of Orion” (or the “Three Kings”)—Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka. They’re 1,500, 2,000 and 1,200 light-years distant, respectively.
- Check out its four bright corner stars—ruddy Betelgeuse (650 light-years) at top right and, alongside it, Bellatrix (245 light-years). At the bottom below the belt is Saiph (720 light-years) and Rigel (864 light-years). Although they can appear from anywhere the radiant point for the Orionid meteors is close to Betelgeuse.
- That fuzzy patch close to Orion’s Belt is M42, a stellar nursery that’s home to newborn stars about 1,300 light-years distant. It’s visible to the naked eye and particularly bright if you look just to the side of it. It looks incredible in binoculars.
- Use binoculars to find Orion’s “snake”—an S-shape curl of stars between Alnilam and Mintaka.
Stargazing at Orion is a fine way to wait for Orionids to streak across the sky. However, be prepared for shooting stars to appear both sporadically and all over the night sky.
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.
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