It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s a flaming piece of dirt!

Right now, if you look up in the sky, you’ll see something amazing. Well, not this second. Right now I can see this…

cloods
Amaaaazing! Image Source: Author’s own

But if you look up tonight, you might just see a meteor shower. So what’s going on here? As you may have guessed, so-called ‘shooting stars’ aren’t literally stars falling from the sky to the Earth. That would be terrible. In reality, they’re just little pieces of flaming dirt.

A long exposure image of the Geminid Meteor Shower last year. Image source: Flickr user Kris Williams

The Solar System, apart from being made up of planets, moons, the sun, asteroids and comets, is also filled with little bits of crud. These meteoroids are left over from the formation of the solar system. Most of them are about the size of a grain of sand, and if they get caught by Earth’s gravity, they heat up from the friction of the atmosphere so they glow and make a beautiful streak. There are heaps of meteoroids just floating around in space. On a regular night, if you look closely you’ll probably see about 2-8 of them per hour.

But every now and then, we experience a meteor shower. This is when we see a whole lot of meteors, way more than you would on a usual night. The meteor shower going on right now is the Orionids, which is one of the biggest of the year. At its best you can sometimes see up to 25 meteors an hour! But where are all these meteors coming from? The answer is pretty cool. Halley’s comet.

Halley’s comet.

Halley’s Comet, taken in 1986 as it passed Earth. Image source: NASA via Wikimedia Commons

Halley’s comet orbits the sun once every 75 years or so. As it does, it leaves little bits of debris behind it, in a big arc. Every year, in October, the Earth passes through this debris, and it burns up in the atmosphere, causing the spectacular Orionids Meteor Shower. So even if you’ve never seen Halley’s comet, look up tonight and might see a little piece of it!

The meteors all seem to come from one point in the sky – the meteor shower’s radiant. As the Earth moves through the path of debris, it’s moving headfirst towards the radiant, so the meteors look like they’re coming from this point in the sky.

How to see the Orionids

So what’s the best way to see the meteor shower? Here’s a little bit of advice.

  1. Go away
    To the country, that is. Looking for meteors in the city can be difficult due to light pollution – the city lights can wash out the meteors.
  2. Hope that it’s not a full moon.
    Similarly, the brightness of the moon can also wash out meteors. And this year the moon will be…

    Image source: Wikimedia Commons user Lviatour

    A gibbous. Almost full. Ah, nuts. Still worth a shot having a look though.

  3. Hope that it’s not cloudy.
    Meteors burn up in the Earth’s thermosphere, from about 80 km to 120 km above the Earth’s surface. This is higher than even the highest clouds, so if it’s cloudy, you won’t see anything cool.
  4. Know when and where to look.
    If you wanna see meteors, you gotta know where to look. For the Orionids, the radiant is near the star Betelgeuse, in the constellation of Orion. Looking around this area gives you the best chance of seeing a meteor. And you gotta know when to look. Interestingly, time zones aren’t much of an issue here. Each time zone faces the radiant one at a time, so people in all time zones can experience the meteor shower when their clocks say pretty much the same time. For the Orionids, you should look into the sky in the hours before dawn.

Hopefully with that advice, you’ll get to see this amazing display of astronomy in action. And while there’s no scientific evidence it works, don’t forget to make a wish if you see a meteor!


One Response to “It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s a flaming piece of dirt!”

  1. Maja Dunstan says:

    Great post! I’m going to see if I can see some tonight now.