Set your alarm to go off early Sunday morning. That’s when the Orionid meteor shower will put on its best display, the good folks at NASA say. The Orionid meteor shower occurs as Earth passes through a string of space debris, including dust, rock and ice, that comes from Halley’s comet.
This space dirt flies into our atmosphere, creating a dazzling light show in the sky as it burns up.
NASA will host a live Web cast of the shower starting Saturday 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. EDT.
To make the most out of your meteor-watching experience, Anita Cochran, a professor of astronomy at the University of Texas, has answered our questions about the cosmic event.
BI: What are meteors?
AC: Meteors are particles of dust or rock passing through the Earth’s atmosphere. The source can be either comets or asteroids and meteors can be seen at any time. However, there are many meteor streams which return at predictable times. These meteors come from comets.
Basically, as a comet orbits the Sun the nucleus gets heated and gas and dust flow outwards from the nucleus. The dust will flow behind the comet in a similar orbit. The dust that flows outwards can stay in orbit around the Sun in an orbit similar to the comet for hundreds of years. When the orbit of the dust intersects with Earth’s orbit and the Earth is at the intersection point, the dust enters the Earth’s atmosphere and the dust gets burned up. Essentially none of the material survives the entry to reach the group.
The Orionid meteor shower represents the intersection of the orbit of Comet Halley’s debris with the Earth’s atmosphere.
BI: How many meteor showers do we get each year?
AC: We typically get around 20 meteor showers a year.
BI: How does this compare to the Perseid Meteor shower we saw in August?
AC: The Perseid shower tends to have more meteors per hour and the meteors are brighter. For the Orionids, we expect around 25 meteors an hour appearing to come from the constellation Orion (Hence the name — they enter the atmosphere from a direction on the sky toward Orion).
BI: What is special about the Orionid shower?
AC: Because comet Halley orbits the Sun in the opposite direction as the Earth, the Orionid meteors enter the atmosphere relatively fast. Thus, they are seen to “explode” (really fall apart) more often than other meteor showers.
BI: What’s the best way to view the meteor shower?
AC: The best way to look is to find a dark sky and look after midnight. Face towards the constellation Orion. Get comfortable (a lounge chair you can lean back in is good). Do not use a telescope or binoculars as you don’t need them and you could not see a wide enough piece of the sky with those tools.
BI: What will I see when I look at the sky?AC: What an observer will see will be streaks of light appearing to originate near the constellation Orion. They will be different brightnesses and some might brighten near the end of their trail. They will be seen for seconds only.
If you snap any great pictures of the meteor shower, feel free to send them to [email protected] and we’ll publish them here.
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