Deluge of dust from Halley’s Comet

The Earth is currently ploughing through a river of dust cast off long ago by Halley’s Comet. First impressions indicate that they are putting on an excellent show.

Orionid radiantThe cosmic debris reveals itself as bright meteors, or shooting stars, as particles stream into the Earth’s atmosphere from space and vaporize in an instant.

This shower is known as the Orionids because the meteors all appear to radiate from the direction of a point near the club being wielded by Orion, the hunter.

The shower is long-lasting, with it first meteors becoming visible as early as October 2, and other being seen as late as the first week of November. It is one of two meteor showers left by Halley’s Comet. The other is the η Aquarids in late April and May.

Maximum of the Orionids occurred yesterday, October 21, when experts at the International Meteor Organization were forecasting zenithal hourly rates (ZHR) of 25 an hour – that being the ideal figure expected if the shower radiant was directly overhead and skies were perfectly clear and dark. In reality, conditions mean that a much lower figure than the ZHR is actually observed by a single observer.

However, the Society for Popular Astronomy’s hard-working Meteor Section director, Alastair McBeath, is today reporting a much stronger return for the Orionids this year, with double or more the predicted rate.

From his observing site in Northumberland, in the north of England, Alastair counted 52 Orionid meteors in the space of three hours on the night of October 20-21. He also saw 31 other non-shower meteors, so it was a productive night. Alastair’s quick calculations from this data suggest a “very healthy” ZHR of 50-60 for the Orionids.

As Alastair is quick to point out in the SPA’s excellent and free Electronic News Bulletins, this data needs to be confirmed by other observations, but the IMO’s own website appear to back his own findings. Indeed, their live graph suggests a brief spell where Orionid rates peaked at around 120 meteors an hour.

Alastair says that elevated ZHRs were already being reported from at least October 19 and high rates could continue for a couple more nights. The Moon is gibbous and bright and will drown out fainter meteors for much of the night, but if it is clear where you are, it could still be worth wrapping up warm and taking a look.

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Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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