As leaf displays reach their colorful peak around the United States, another dazzling display is set to reach its zenith in the night sky. And according to forecasters, there's a decent chance many of us will have an unabated view for the show.
The Orionid meteor shower, which appear to radiate from the constellation Orion, will reach its peak this year in the pre-dawn hours of Oct. 21. The display of shooting stars is caused by Halley's Comet which, as it passes close to the sun every 74-79 years, sheds rock particles previously entombed in ice. Every October around this time of year, Earth's orbit takes it through this debris field, and we get the Orionids.
While this meteor shower isn't as strong in the numbers-per-hour department — with only 20-50 expected — NASA still considers it one of the most awe-inspiring.
"The Orionid meteor shower is not the strongest, but it is one of the most beautiful showers of the year," Bill Cooke, head of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office, said in 2014. He explained that the biggest draw is the shower's setting, with bright constellations like "Taurus, Gemini and Orion provide a glittering backdrop for the display."
Where to look
The Orionids are capable of producing several dozen shooting stars per hour. (Photo: Dave Dugdale/Flickr)
Choosing an environment far away from artificial light — an increasingly difficult feat — is always the baseline recommendation for night sky viewing, but there's another reason you're going to want very dark skies for this weekend's shower. October's full moon, nicknamed the Hunter's Moon, will arrive on Oct. 24, so the nights leading up to peak Orionids will face stiff competition from encroaching moonlight.
Nonetheless, we can expect at least several fireballs per hour to sear the evening sky. Once you've got your viewing site picked out, look for the constellation of Orion the Hunter to rise over the eastern sky. The best time will be just after midnight, when Orion reaches its highest point in the sky. Look for shooting stars to radiate at speeds of 148,000 miles per hour north of Betelgeuse, the star that makes Orion’s left shoulder.
According to Accuweather, those living in major cities around the U.S. should experience clear skies during the peak of the Orionids.
"This includes cities such as Boston, Philadelphia, New York City, St. Louis, Denver and Seattle," they write. "However, residents of these cities may want to head out to a darker area as light pollution from the city will greatly reduce the number of meteors visible to the naked eye."