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Orionid meteors are among the most beautiful of the year, and we're in the midst of them.

Orionid Meteors Sparkle and May Explode: Halley’s Comet Says Hello

ICTMN Staff
10/19/14

It’s fireball season above the skies of Mother Earth, just in time for Halloween, as the Orionid meteor shower peppers the night with shooting stars.

The shower peaks in the early-morning hours of Tuesday October 21, meaning the night of October 20. Getting up before dawn on Tuesday will afford the greatest view, NASA says, while Earthsky.org suggests looking anytime after midnight.

The good news is that the moon has just about bowed out this time of month, so unlike last year, the Orionids will have little competition other than urban lights in heavily populated areas.

RELATED: Orionids, Dimmed by Moonlight, Will Do Their Best to Shine

"We expect to see about 20 meteors per hour when the shower peaks on Tuesday morning, October 21st," said Bill Cooke, the head of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office, in a statement. "With no moon to spoil the show, observing conditions should be ideal. The Orionid meteor shower is not the strongest, but it is one of the most beautiful showers of the year."

The shower is composed of debris from that most famous of comets, Halley. The comet itself only graces our skies once every 75 years, but twice a year we pass through its trail. This creates both the Orionids every October, and the Eta Aquarids, which occur in May.

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Cooke suggests going outside when the sky is at its darkest and the constellation Orion is at its highest—the meteors appear to emanate from his club or shoulder—and to lie down on a blanket so as to view the largest swathe of sky possible. 

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Besides being beautiful, the Orionids factor into Native history. The great Shawnee leader Tecumseh's very name means Shooting Star, or literally, The Panther Passing Across, due to the brightness of a meteor that streaked across the sky as the newborn cried out.

RELATED: Orionid Meteor Shower and the Great Leader Tecumseh

But that’s not all. October is actually the season for three meteor showers, the other two being the Taurids, from a completely different comet, Universetoday.com tells us. The Southern Taurids and Northern Taurids peak in early and late October, respectively, with the latter running through early November, Universetoday.com says.

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All three showers tend to produce fireballs, but for different reasons. In the case of the Northern Taurids, it’s because they approach Earth from behind its orbit, which gives them a slow entry speed of 17 miles per second, or 65,000 mph.

“This makes for long, stately meteor trains often visible in the evening hours before local midnight,” Universetoday.com says.

The opposite is true for the Orionids, which slam into our atmosphere at a whopping 41 miles per second, according to NASA's  Solar System Exploration page.

"Be prepared for speed," says Cooke in NASA’s statement. "Meteoroids from Halley’s Comet strike Earth's atmosphere traveling 148,000 mph. Only the November Leonids are faster."

The faster the meteor, the better a chance it has of exploding. Hence the fireball. Or it could do something perhaps even cooler.

“Occasionally, Orionid fireballs will leave incandescent streams of debris in their wake that linger for minutes,” NASA says. “Such filaments of 'meteor smoke' twisted by upper atmospheric winds into convoluted shapes can be even prettier than the meteors themselves.”

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