Attack Ships on Fire off the Shoulder of Orion? No, Just the Orionid Meteor Shower Peaking Tonight

Monday, 21 October 2019 - 8:45AM
Space
Astronomy
Monday, 21 October 2019 - 8:45AM
Attack Ships on Fire off the Shoulder of Orion? No, Just the Orionid Meteor Shower Peaking Tonight
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NASA/Bill Ingalls
So maybe you missed the Draconid and Taurid meteor showers earlier this month. Maybe you read our coverage too late. Maybe it was too bright or too cloudy in your neighborhood. Maybe you were too busy trolling from the warm, cozy safety of your parents' basement, stuffing your face with corn chips and processed cheese, desperately hoping to fill the void of inarticulate inanity that fuels the commentary that has come to characterize social media. Well buck up, little camper, providence has granted you another chance to be awed by the sublime glory of the ageless stars.


That's right, tonight brings another galactic spectacle: in this case the Orionid meteor shower, courtesy of Halley's Comet as we pass through its ice tail of dust, debris, and other cosmic detritus only to watch it burn up in our ever-thinning atmosphere like so many precious moments. Fun fact: the Orionids are the second annual shower generated by Halley's Comet. The ETA Aquarids arrive every spring in mid-April. So why do two showers caused by the same comet have different names? Well, if you've been paying attention, you'll know that it's because meteor showers are named for the constellations that they appear to radiate from. In the case of the Orionids, the "shooting stars" appear to radiate from the constellation Orion – one of the easiest constellations to find, even in light-polluted New York City, due to the prominence of its two brightest stars, Betelgeuse (Orion's left shoulder) and Rigel (Orion's right knee) and the easily identified three-star cluster that make up Orion's belt.


photo by Outer Places from public domain images


The Orionids do not, however, radiate from Orion's belt. Instead, you'll need to look to the left of Betelgeuse (and do not say it three times) to where the hunter's right arm is raised as he prepares to nock another arrow (see our illustration above). They'll be most visible – light pollution and clouds notwithstanding – when Orion appears high in the sky after midnight, with an expected frequency of 20 - 25 meteors per hour. In the spirit of all-things-Orion, we'd be remiss if we didn't double-down on our reference to this iconic moment from Blade Runner.




Go. Look up. Marvel at the skies and imagine watching attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. There's no better occasion to get out of the basement. 


Carpe noctem.
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