Orionid Meteor Shower Promises Pretty Show

The peak of the Orionid meteor shower promises a dazzling Saturday night display of dusty ice and rock fragments as the earth passes through the trail of Comet Halley, but those hoping to see it will have to stay up late—or get up early. 

Jason Kendall of the Amateur Astronomers Association of New York compares searching the night sky for meteors to watching bugs splatter against the windshield of a car. “[After midnight] the meteorites hit the earth’s atmosphere head-on as opposed to a tail-on,” he explained.  

Clear skies and a first quarter moon will make for ideal viewing conditions, but light pollution presents an obstacle for New Yorkers hoping to catch a glimpse of the shower, which will hit its zenith around midnight Saturday and last until just before dawn Sunday. The meteor shower, however, will be visible from several locations in the metropolitan area. Kendall recommends making a trek to Inwood Hill Park, Floyd Bennett Field, or anywhere on Long Island with a view of the south side of the sound. 

“You can’t really have a street light or an overhead light within 40 or 50 yards of you and you should be able to see the Little Dipper in the sky,” he said. “If you can’t see the Little Dipper, you’re going to have a tough time seeing meteors.”

The Orionid meteors, which emerge from their namesake constellation once a year in mid-to-late October, streak out across the entire sky at speeds as high as 148,000 miles per hour. The high speeds increase the likelihood that the meteors will explode and form fireballs, which leave behind luminous streams of debris that bend into twisting, radiant shapes in the upper atmosphere — sometimes considered more beautiful than the meteors themselves.

The Amateur Astronomers Association will host a free pre-meteor shower astronomy event in Sheep Meadow in Central Park on Saturday October 20th from 6:30pm to 10pm. More information can be found here.

For more on the Orionid meteor shower, watch this NASA ScienceCast: