We are in the peak days of the Orionid meteor shower and if you are somewhere with low levels of light pollution and clear skies, you are in for a treat. The meteor shower appears from early October until the first week of November, peaking around October 21 and 22 with an expected 20 or so meteors per hour.
The name of the shower comes from the constellation of Orion, as it appears to radiate just above and to the left of Betelgeuse, the second brightest star in Orion that makes up the right shoulder of the mythological hunter. It is a peculiar shower as it has been seen in the past having multiple peaks as well as plateauing. Its intensity has also changed over the years, with very busy displays observed a decade or so ago. So you never know, we might be getting a hectic spectacle this year.
Meteor showers happen when Earth passes through the cloud of debris leftover by a comet. In the case of the Orionids, they are the specks of rock and ice leftover from the most famous comet out there – Halley’s Comet – and the peak is our planet crossing the densest part of the cloud.
Halley’s Comet is a short-period comet, returning near the inner Solar System every 75 or 76 years with the next passage being in mid-2061. As the comet moves towards the Sun, it becomes more active, “polluting” its orbit and ours with comet dust. Around October time, Earth passes through this cloud and these flakes burn up in our atmosphere leaving bright streaks visible to us in their wake.
Surprisingly, the comet is also associated with another shower, the Eta Aquariids, which are believed to have originated from the comet but have been separated from it for the last few hundred years. This shower peaks in May.
If you are interested in seeing the Orionids in all their splendor, the best time to look is just before sunrise when they will be high in the sky. If you prefer sleeping in, the meteors’ radiant will be in an easterly direction and should be clearly visible from about midnight onwards. You do not need a telescope or a binocular to enjoy the spectacle, it's actually much better to not use any implements as it reduces your field of view.