Did you get to see the Orionid meteor shower this weekend? I managed an hour and a half under a moonless sky this morning between 5 and 6:30 a.m. Although twilight began around 6, I stuck around as the sky brightened. Good thing I did. A nib of Halley’s Comet zipped across Taurus, flared brightly and left a white streak in its wake. Wow!
Relaxing in a lawn chair I spotted a total of 9 Orionids and 4 random meteors called sporadics. The shower members were swift and white with several leaving glowing “trains” or streaks of light formed when atoms ionized by the meteoroid’s passage through the atmosphere get their electrons back and release light in the process. While waiting for the meteors, I took out binoculars to scan around the winter sky. That’s the what’s on display when you’re out at that hour — Gemini the Twins overhead, Orion sliding westward, Sirius flashing in the south and Leo the Lion pawing his way up the east.
A dog barked. Traffic rose up from a busy road 2 miles away as the crow flies. The sky seemed pale at first, maybe because of lingering light from the setting moon, but over time, my eyes accommodated to the darkness and by 5:45 the firmament was grainy with stars. Satellites appeared constantly as if by spontaneous generation from the darkness. Some went north, some went south. I saw twice as many of these mechanical “moving stars” as meteors.
My neighbor across the street started up his truck and let the engine run. Another meteor shot by. I folded my legs and crossed my arms to keep the chill away. All the while, the big fat finger of the zodiacal light — a band of comet and asteroid dust glowing along the zodiacal constellations Leo, Cancer and Gemini — poked above the surrounding trees in the eastern sky.
It’s a bit early to know just when the peak of the Orionids occurred as data from meteor observers around the world is still coming in, but you can check current counts at the International Meteor Organization’s Orionids 2018 Campaign. So far, it looks like Saturday night-Sun. morning showed the strongest activity though that’s subject to change.
Fall and winter are among the best seasons for meteor showers. In early November, the Northern Taurids (from Taurus the Bull) are active with the peak occurring on the night of Nov. 11-12. The moon will only be a waxing crescent at the time and interfere little. This shower is spread out over several weeks and known for its frequent fireballs. Then come the Leonids (Leo the Lion) which peak during the early morning hours of Nov. 17. The waxing gibbous moon sets around 1 a.m., leaving a generous window of darkness before dawn. Approximately every 33 years, the Leonids go ballistic as Earth enters a dense strand of debris from the comet 55P/Temple-Tuttle, however most years including this one, 15 per hour from a dark, rural sky is the norm.
All these lead to the climatic Geminid shower that streams from Gemini the Twins every December. Now the richest shower of the year, these fiery gems reach their peak on the night of Dec. 13-14 with up to 100 meteors visible per hour from a dark sky. Suburban viewers might see half that number, still plenty!
There’s much to look forward to as the year wanes.