Cosmic litter from Halley's Comet is set to pepper the night sky in a meteor shower before dawn this weekend and early next week.
The Orionid meteor shower can best be described as a lesser version of the famous Perseid meteor shower of August. The October shower is scheduled to reach its maximum before sunrise on Monday morning (Oct. 21). The meteors are known as "Orionids" because they seem to fan out from a region to the north of Orion's second brightest star, the ruddy hued Betelgeuse.
Currently, Orion appears ahead of Earth in the planet's journey around the sun. The constellation does not completely rise above the eastern horizon until after 11:30 p.m. local daylight time. (Photos: Orionid Meteor Shower of 2012)
At its best during the predawn hours around 5 a.m. EDT (0900 GMT) — Orion will be highest in the sky toward the south — the Orionids typically produce around 20 to 25 meteors per hour under a clear, dark sky. This shower is one of just a handful of known meteor showers that can be observed equally well from both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.
Usually Orionid meteors are normally dim and not well seen from urban locations, so it's suggested that you find a safe, rural location to see the best Orionid activity.
Orionid activity tends to noticeably ramp-up by around Oct. 17 when they start appearing at roughly five per hour. The shower may be quite active for several days before or after its broad maximum, which may last from Oct. 19 through Oct. 23. After peaking on the morning of Oct. 21, activity will begin to slowly descend, dropping back to around five per hour around Oct. 25. The last stragglers usually appear sometime in early to mid November.
The moon 'muscles in'
Unfortunately, 2013 is a poor year for the Orionids thanks to the moon, which turns full on Oct. 18.
On the morning of the Orionid maximum on Monday the meteor shower will share the sky with the brilliant light of a 94 percent illuminated gibbous moon. Although the Orionids will be at their peak, most of meteors will likely be obliterated by the bright moonlight.
If the moon, weather or poor timing obstructs your view of the meteor shower, you can also catch sight of the Orionids online. The online Slooh Space Camera will host live views of the meteor shower from the Canary Islands off the coast of West Africa on Oct. 20. The broadcast begins at 8 p.m. EDT (0000 Oct. 21 GMT) and you can watch the Orionid webcast on SPACE.com courtesy of Slooh.
Still, an exceptionally bright Orionid, darting from out of Orion's region might still be glimpsed.
"They are easily identified . . . from their speed," write David Levy and Stephen Edberg in Observe: Meteors, an Astronomical League manual. "At 66 kilometers (41 miles) per second, they appear as fast streaks, faster by a hair than their sisters, the Eta Aquarids of May. And like the Eta Aquarids, the brightest of this family tend to leave long-lasting trains."
Indeed, recent studies have shown that about half of all spotted Orionids leave trails that lasted longer than other meteors of equivalent brightness.