Comet Halley doesn’t visit often ( 1910, 1986, again in 2061 ). Not to be forgotten, every October delivers the Orionid meteor shower – an annual event marked by Earth intersecting the orbit of Halley’s dust trail. Dust being tiny particles of ice and debris left in the wake as Halley hurtles through space. Dubbed “Orionids” because “shooting stars” streak from constellation Orion. This year the Orionids peak on October 20-21 in the northern hemisphere.
2014 is a good year for Orionid views – a cooperative waning crescent moon will rise just before dawn. Provided skies are clear, moonlight won’t compete with falling star twinkles. Orionids reliably deliver around 25 sightings an hour. Indulge just before dawn, far away from cities and light pollution.
The Orionid meteor shower peaks tomorrow night; while not one of the most prolific displays, with an average of 20 meteors an hour, it remains one of the easiest to locate in a pre dawn sky. Almost everyone has heard of the constellation Orion; distinguished by the distinctive three star “belt”. Find Orion and you’ve found the Orionids. Debris from the tail of Halley’s Comet lights up our skies from constellation Orion shortly before sunrise being the best time to catch a “falling star”.
Image from NASA
This year Orionids are forced to compete with a Hunter’s Moon -also known as a Full Harvest Moon. Luckily they are reliable when it comes to bright fireballs. So if your weather cooperates, haul yourself out of bed and marvel at our universe. I guarantee you’ll start your day with a smile on your face.
Halley’s Comet last visited earth in 1986; far beyond the orbit of Uranus, it won’t be back until 2061. Halley laps the solar system approximately every 76 years – though light years away, it leaves behind a trail of cosmic dust. Twice a year our orbit passes this dust trail – in May the Aquarid meteors and in October the Orionids.
The Aquarids – named for their origin in the Aquarius constellation – peak tonight and tomorrow. The southern hemisphere has the best seats for this show with over 50 meteors an hour hitting the atmosphere at 66 Km/second. Northern hemisphere viewers can still see show, even though it’s hampered by Aquarius barely rising above the horizon.
Betelgeuse is a massive red giant star located in the Orion constellation. The three stars forming Orion’s belt make it one of the most distinguishable landmarks in the night sky. Find Orion’s belt, look up and slightly to the left; you are now pondering Betelgeuse, a dying star which could go “supernova” at any time. Betelgeuse is 640 light years from our planet, in cosmic terms just around the corner. Realistically far enough away to spare Earth when the inevitable happens.
A red giant is a star that has fused all its hydrogen supply, the core becomes compact and heats up enough to fuse helium into oxygen and carbon. The action of the core compacting is off set by an expansion of the outer regions which take on a red glow. Betelgeuse is huge; if you sat it on top of Earth it would cover an area all the way to Jupiter.
Science has no way to determine when Betelgeuse will run out of elements. The moment iron is produced it will collapse in a millisecond, splattering the universe with the building blocks to form new worlds. The universe has a circle of life, the seasons just happen to be millions of years long.
Forget the “light of the silvery moon” bring on a glowing shower of fireballs. Between November 5 – 12 our planet passes through debris from Comet Encke, its known as the Taurid Meteor Shower. For those who trouble themselves with statistics, the Taurids may only average 8 meteors per hour. Not much of a show compared to the Perseids. Don’t despair; Taurid brings fireballs.
One characteristic of Taurid is the space baggage it packs. Marble sized debris travels at a sluggish 27 km/second, allowing it to penetrate more of our atmosphere before burning up. Most cosmic debris enters our atmosphere at considerably higher speeds, fizzling out a lot faster. Taurid’s slow moving space junk may have be tiny when entering our atmosphere; many a good fireball comes in small packages.