Vestiges of Halley’s Comet
It’s been 26 years since Halley’s comet visited back in 1986, and it won’t come this way again until 2062. But each year at this time we get a postcard of sorts from Halley in the form of the Orionid meteor shower, which peaks in the pre-dawn hours Saturday and Sunday.
Halley’s comet travels in a deep, oblong loop through our solar system every 76 years. As it travels, it leaves a wake of countless bits of rock and ice. Annually, Earth plows through that trail. As the bits of cosmic debris collide against our atmosphere, they burst aflame, visibly streaking through our darkened skies as the Orionid meteors.
While the meteors are the spawn of Halley’s comet, to the eye it looks as if they originate from the constellation Orion, which is why they aren’t called the Halleid meteor shower or some such.
The Orionids begin after midnight, but they are best seen closer to dawn, when Orion is at its highest in the south. At that point you can hope to see 10, 15, maybe 20 meteors in a given hour. The waxing crescent moon doesn’t rise until well after daybreak this weekend, so it won’t be interfering with the show. Don’t be surprised if you see an errant meteor for several days before and after the peak.
While watching for meteors before dawn, you can’t miss Venus in the east and Jupiter high in the south-southwest. These are the two brightest celestial objects other than the sun and moon, yet Venus shines almost twice as bright and appears double the size of Jupiter.
In evening skies, Mars and his similar-hued rival Antares have been drawing toward one another. Saturday, night they reach their closest, little more than three degrees apart low in the southwest, Mars higher and to the right of Antares.