The 2020 Orionid Meteor Shower

Meteor shower (Getty, Sky2014)

Look up! We’ll be moving through the peak of the Orionid Meteor Shower over the next several nights. The peak of this shower is expected from 11:00 PM Wednesday 21st October through sunrise (5:54 AM) Thursday 22nd October 2020.

What is the Orionid Meteor Shower?

The Orionids peak during the latter half of October each year. This shower is considered to be one of the most beautiful meteor showers of the year. Orionid meteors are known for their brightness and for their speed. These meteors are fast—they travel at about 148,000 MPH (66 kilometers per second) into the Earth’s atmosphere. Fast meteors can leave glowing “trains” (incandescent bits of debris in the wake of the meteor) which last for several seconds to minutes.

Fast meteors can also sometimes become fireballs: Look for prolonged explosions of light when viewing the Orionid meteor shower.

Where Do Meteors Come From?

As the Earth travels through leftover comet or astroid debris, we see "fireballs" or meteors streaking through the night sky as the debris burns up upon entry into the atmosphere. In the Orionid Meteor Shower, this debris is leftover from Halley's Comet. Image: Accuweather
As the Earth travels through leftover comet or astroid debris, we see “fireballs” or meteors streaking through the night sky as the debris burns up upon entry into the atmosphere. In the Orionid Meteor Shower, this debris is leftover from Halley’s Comet. Image: Accuweather

Meteors come from leftover comet particles and bits from broken asteroids. When comets come around the sun, the dust they emit gradually spreads into a dusty trail around their orbits. Every year the Earth passes through these debris trails, which allows the bits to collide with our atmosphere where they disintegrate to create fiery and colorful streaks in the sky.

The Orionid meteors are debris left behind by Comet Halley, arguably the most famous of all comets, which last visited Earth in 1986. This comet leaves debris in its wake that strikes Earth’s atmosphere most fully around October 20-22, while Earth intersects the comet’s orbit, as it does every year at this time.

The Orionid’s Peak

Meteor showers are very predictable events, so astronomers know exactly when you have the best chance of seeing them.

This year’s Orionids have been visible since October 2nd and will continue to be visible through November 7th, 2020.

But the best time to see them is at their peak intensity. The peak intensity is expected overnight from October 21st through October 22nd.

Orionid rates should be currently near 5 per hour during the last few hours before dawn. This should increase to 15-20 meteors per hour near maximum activity.

Weatherwise, conditions are looking good this upcoming week for stargazing. However, we will have the usual issues of light pollution to contend with.

Conditions for Viewing

You can look up at the night sky nearly every night this week to see if you can catch a glimpse of a meteor. Generally, the best times for viewing will be between 11:00 PM and sunrise, which is generally from 5:40 PM through 6:00 AM this week. As mentioned, the peak of this shower is expected from 11:00 PM Wednesday 21st October through sunrise (5:54 AM) Thursday 22nd October 2020.

But, there are impediments for viewing in Trinidad and Tobago.

Firstly, light pollution is a major issue in most populated areas across Western and Northern Trinidad, as well as the Western half of Tobago. Unfortunately, there is little you can do about this beyond traveling into darker areas such as parts of Northern Coastal Trinidad, or Eastern and Southern parts of the island.

Cloud cover is not anticipated to be a major issue until Thursday night, as an area of dry air will be present across T&T from Monday through the week. The moon is in a waxing crescent phase, setting before midnight, providing dark skies for this year’s Orionid meteor shower.

Look Toward the East and South

Star chart showing radiant point of Orionids.
The Orionids radiate from a point near the upraised Club of the constellation Orion the Hunter. The bright star near the radiant point is Betelgeuse.

The Orionids appear as though they’re coming from the Orion constellation. But you probably won’t see them until they’ve moved away from Orion in a random direction.

So Orion won’t help you spot the meteors, but you can trace meteors back to the constellation. You can use an AR app like Night Sky on your smartphone to track down the constellation.

There’s no best place to look, so just find a nice open area with a wide view of the sky. Some of the Orionids will leave a small trail for a few seconds, which is helpful.

It’s Meteors – Not an Asteroid to Comet

Down-to-earth Journey of a Meteor Image: Space.com
Down-to-earth Journey of a Meteor Image: Space.com

It may be self-explanatory, as it is literally in the name of the shower, but the “shooting stars” you may see in the skies over the next several nights are meteors.

The terminology of these space objects matter, as a meteorite would have impacts to land, while a meteor does not.

Have you ever wondered what’s the difference between a meteor and a meteorite or an asteroid, meteoroid or comet? Here are the answers to all your questions regarding Meteor Terminology. Image: Vincent Perlerin/AMS

Meteor and meteorite strikes are more common than you might think. Dust-grain size meteoroids strike the Earth’s atmosphere almost constantly, but they often go unnoticed. Meteoroids between a millimeter and a centimeter burn up in the atmosphere and appear to us as shooting stars.

Larger strikes are less common—a one-meter meteoroid strikes the Earth once each year on average and would reach the ground as smaller debris, while a 100-meter meteoroid strikes the Earth approximately every 10,000 years, according to a Tufts University fact sheet. Meteoroids over 1 kilometer hitting Earth are catastrophic events that occur every 1 million years on average.

Meteoroids do not discriminate where they land, nor where they enter the earth’s atmosphere. Hence, it is well within the realm of possibility that events such as this could happen across Trinidad, Tobago or any of the other Caribbean islands.

But medium-size strikes can be dramatic spectacles—and in some cases, dangerous. The Chelyabinsk meteor that struck southern Russia in February 2013 blew out windows and caused indirect injuries to almost 1,500 people.

Tips for Viewing

via EarthSky.org

1. Realize that this shower rises gradually to its peak. Few meteor showers – certainly not the Orionids – are a one-night event. You could start tonight!

2. Be aware of the time of moonset each night. As much as possible, in the weeks between now and the peak, you’ll want to be out looking after moonset. 

3. Watch in the hours before dawn Most meteor showers are best after midnight, and the Orionids are no exception. After midnight, the part of Earth you’re standing on has turned into the meteor stream, which means the radiant point for the shower will be above your horizon.

4. Avoid city lights. This should go without saying, but just a reminder. A wide-open area – a field or a lonely country road – is best if you’re serious about watching meteors.

5. Camp! Nothing beats a set-up before the night begins. Of course, you’ll never see as many meteors in the evening as you will after midnight, but – if you are watching during the evening hours – you might catch an earthgrazer, which is a slow-moving and long-lasting meteor, traveling horizontally across your sky. Earthgrazers might be seen even in bright moonlight. They tend to be seen in late evening, or around midnight.

6. Make yourself comfortable. Sprawl out upon a reclining lawn chair, with an open view of sky. Bring along a blanket or sleeping bag. Your eyes can take as long as 20 minutes to adapt to the dark, so give yourself at least an hour of observation time.

7. Watch with friend or friends, and try facing in different directions so that if someone sees a meteor, that person can call out – “meteor!” – to the rest.

8. Notice the meteors’ speeds and colors, and watch for meteor trains.  Orionid meteors are known for their brightness and for their speed. These meteors are fast—they travel at about 148,000 mph into the Earth’s atmosphere A meteor train is a persistent glow in the air, left by some meteors after they have faded from view. Trains are caused by luminous ionized matter left in the wake of this incoming space debris. They linger for a moment or two after the meteor has gone.

9. Embrace the night. We hear people bubble with excitement about seeing meteors in all sorts of conditions – moon or no moon – city lights or no city lights. The Perseids, in particular, tend to have a lot of fireballs. And so, camp out and make a night of it! At the end of the Perseid shower, look for Orion. As dawn breaks, this bright constellation will be ascending in the east before dawn. Read more.

Check out other stories on celestial events.

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