Night owls, rejoice: From midnight to dawn in the coming days, stargazers with clear skies will be able to see the peak of the 2017 Orionid meteor shower. And thanks to a mostly moonless sky, the Orionids promise to be one of the most beautiful celestial shows of the year.
Meteors are chunks of space rock that become visible when they enter Earth's atmosphere. The pieces typically range in size from grains of sand to small boulders, and they can shoot through the sky at speeds of over 160,000 miles an hour. (See a fireball meteor that landed off the coast of Brazil.)
Annual meteor showers are nothing to fear: The streaks of light that make meteors so fun to watch are created as the debris burns up in our atmosphere. Around 21 meteor showers occur every year, and the majority of those can be seen from August to December.
The Orionids flare up when Earth moves through a field of debris created by Halley's Comet. While the comet itself won't be seen again until 2061, it sheds particles as it nears the sun, leaving debris in its orbit. Earth passes through this material every October, creating a meteor shower that peaks around October 21 and 22.
As the name suggests, the Orionids seem to radiate from the constellation Orion, the hunter, which will be visible in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. However, meteors are not always brightest where they originate. NASA recommends facing the southeast in the Northern Hemisphere or the northeast in the Southern Hemisphere and trying to take in as much sky as possible.
The Orionids are a relatively modest shower. In regions with little light pollution, you should be able to see about 10 to 15 meteors each hour during the peak. (Meteorology site Accuweather has provided a national forecast of the best viewing spots in the U.S.) By contrast, the August Perseids delivered 20 to 80 meters an hour, depending on local sky conditions.
But this year, the Orionids will put on a particularly good show, because the peak happens only a day after the new moon, when the lunar disk is shrouded in darkness. That means there will be almost no glare from moonlight to obscure your view of the stars.
While looking for meteors streaking across the sky, don't forget to gaze at the bright star Sirius, as well as the constellations Gemini and Taurus, which will also be putting on a show in the late night to early morning for northern sky-watchers.