Tears of the Hunter: Our Guide to the 2016 Orionid Meteor Shower

Orionid

The month of October is upon us this coming weekend, and with it, one of the better annual meteor showers is once again active: the Orionids.

In 2016, the Orionid meteors are expected to peak on October 22nd at 2:00 UT (10:00 PM U.S. Eastern Time on October 21st) , favoring Europe and Africa in the early morning hours. The shower is active for a one month period from October 2nd to November 2nd, and can vary with a Zenithal Hourly Rate (ZHR) of 10-70 meteors per hour. This year, the Orionids are expected to produce a maximum ideal ZHR of 15-25 meteors per hour. The radiant of the Orionids is located near right ascension 6 hours 24 minutes, declination 15 degrees north at the time of the peak. The radiant is in the constellation of Orion very near its juncture with Gemini and Taurus.

A gallery of Fall meteor shower radiants, including the October Orionids. Image credit: Stellarium
A gallery of Fall meteor shower radiants, including the October Orionids. Image credit: Stellarium

The Moon is at a 55% illuminated, waning gibbous phase at the peak of the Orionids, making 2016 an unfavorable year for this shower, though that shouldn’t stop you from trying. It’s true that the Moon is only 19 degrees east of the radiant in the adjacent constellation Gemini at its peak on the key morning of October 22, though it’ll move farther on through the last week of October.

In previous recent years, the Orionids produced a Zenithal Hourly Rate (ZHR) of 20 (2014) and a ZHR of 30 (2013).

The Orionid meteors strike the Earth at a moderately fast velocity of 66 km/s, and the shower tends to produce a relatively high ratio of fireballs with an r value of = 2.5. The source of the Orionids is none other than renowned comet 1/P Halley. Halley last paid the inner solar system a visit in early 1986, and will once again reach perihelion on July 28, 2061. Let’s see, by then I’ll be…

The orientation of the Earth's shadow vs, the zenith positions of the Sun, Moon and the radiant of the Orionid meteors at the expected peak of the shower on October 22nd. Image adapted from Orbitron
The orientation of the Earth’s shadow vs the zenith positions of the Sun, Moon and the radiant of the Orionid meteors at the expected during the peak of the shower on October 22nd. Image adapted from Orbitron.

Unlike most meteor showers, the Orionids display a very unpredictable maximum – many sources decline to put a precise date on the shower’s expected maximum at all. On some years, the Orionids barely top 10 per hour at their maximum, while on others they display a broad but defined peak. One 1982 study out of Czechoslovakia suggested a twin peak for this shower after looking at activity from 1944 to 1950. All good reasons to be vigilant for Orionids throughout the coming month of October.

And check out this brilliant meteor that lit up the skies over the southern UK this past weekend:

‘Tis the season for cometary dust particles to light up the night sky. Trace the path of a suspect meteor to the club of Orion, and you’ve likely sighted an Orionid meteor. But other showers showers are active in October, including:

The Draconids: Peaking around October 8th, these are debris shed by Comet 21P Giacobini-Zinner. The Draconids are prone to great outbursts, such as the 2011 and 2012 meteor storm, but are expected to yield a paltry ZHR of 10 in 2016.

The Taurids: Late October into early November is Taurid fireball season, peaking with a ZHR of 5 around October 10th (the Southern Taurids) and November 12th (the Northern Taurids).
The Camelopardalids: Another wildcard shower prone to periodic outbursts. 2016 is expected to be an off year for this shower, with a ZHR of 10 topping out on October 5.

And farther afield, we’ve got the Leonids (November 17th) the Geminids (December 14th) and the Ursids (December 22nd) to close out 2016.

A 2015 Orionid captured by a NASA All-Sky camera atop Mt. Lemmon, Arizona. Image credit: NASA.
A 2015 Orionid captured by a NASA All-Sky camera atop Mt. Lemmon, Arizona. Image credit: NASA.

Observing a meteor shower like the Orionids is as simple as finding a dark site with a clear horizon, laying back and watching via good old Mark-1 eyeball. Blocking that gibbous Moon behind a building or hill will also increase your chances of catching an Orionid. Expect rates to pick up toward dawn, as the Earth turns forward and plows headlong into the meteor stream.

You can make a count of what you see and report it to the International Meteor Organization which keeps regular tabs of meteor activity.
Photographing Orionids this year might be problematic, owing to the proximity of the bright Moon, though not impossible. Again, aiming at a wide quadrant of the sky opposite to the Moon might just nab a bright Orionid meteor in profile. We like to just set our camera’s intervalometer to take a sequence of 30” exposures of the sky, and let it do the work while we’re observing visually. Nearly every meteor we’ve caught photographically turned up in later review, a testament to the limits of visual observing.

Clear skies, good luck, and send those Orionid images in the Universe Today’s Flickr forum.

The 2015 Orionids: Watch the Meteors Fly from the Club of Orion

(Note: we’ll be posting this article as a running blog with updates over the next few mornings, as the Orionids are already moderately active for this week. Watch this space for info as it is added after our first meteor vigil tomorrow morning and Wednesday, weather and clear skies willing…)

The month of October is about midway through meteor shower season for the northern hemisphere, and one of the annual sure-fire best bets is the Orionid meteor shower. One of two meteor showers emanating from debris shed  by that most famous of all periodic comets –1/P Halley—the Orionids generate a typical zenithal hourly rate of around 20 per hour, though surges heading towards a ZHR of in the range 70 are not unknown on some years.

Orionid radiant
The radiant for the Orionid meteors, looking eastward around 2 AM local. Image credit: Stellarium

2015 sees the shower peaking right around the morning of Wednesday, October 21st. This will place the Moon at a 59% illuminated waxing gibbous phase and setting around local midnight, setting the stage for dark AM skies, perfect for meteor hunting.

Like the springtime Eta Aquarids also generated by Halley’s Comet, the Orionids are swift movers, striking the atmosphere at about 66 kilometers per second. The shower’s radiant drifts across the club of Orion the Hunter toward the astronomical constellation Gemini near its peak, and the radiant rides highest around 4 AM local time. This is also typically the best time to carry out a meteor vigil, as early morning hours places an Earth-bound observer facing forward into the oncoming meteor stream.

The twin Spring and Fall showers hailing from Halley’s are a product of the geometry of its elliptical orbit: Halley’s Comet spends most of its 75.3 year orbit south of the ecliptic, and only briefly ‘pops up’ northward above the Earth’s orbit for northern hemisphere viewers for a few months around perihelion, which next occurs on July 28th, 2061.

Image credit
The orbit of Halley’s Comet through the inner solar system. Note: in this graphic, celestial south is up. Image credit: NASA/JPL Small Body Database Browser.

Let’s see, I’ll be 90-something next time Halley’s Comet comes ‘round next…

Like many meteor showers, researchers (with the tongue-twisting title of meteoriticists) are still working to precisely model the debris streams of showers such as the Orionids. There’s evidence to suggest an 11 year periodicity for the Orionid meteor stream undergoing modification by the gravitational influence of the giant planet Jupiter, a period which we’re approximately passing the mid-point low for in 2015.

Rates for the Orionids from previous years seem to support this trend: over the last few years, observers saw the Orionids top out at a ZHR of 21(2014), 45(2012), 33(2011) and 38(2010) as per the International Meteor Organization (IMO).

Image credit:
The International Meteor Organization’s quick look data gathered from ground observer reports for the zenithal hourly rate (ZHR) for the 2014 Orionid meteor shower. Image credit: The International Meteor Organization

The next few mornings are key for a successful Orionid vigil. The Orionids also display a broad swath of activity, typically running from early October, to the first week of November before falling back down to levels below the background sporadic rate.

And while 2015 may be an off year for the Orionids, another shower may prompt a once a decade fireball swarm to rival the Full Moon this Halloween right into early November…

Will the Northern Taurids of 2015 perform? Stay tuned!

Update: Well, skies were indeed clear over the Central Florida peninsula this AM, allowing for a brief one hour vigil before dawn ensued. We counted three swift Orionids for about 40 minutes of total effective observing time, suggesting the the current rate is already well above the background sporadic rate, not bad. A late season Draconid meteor, and a curious unidentified tumbling satellite on a retrograde (read ‘Earth observing’ or spy satellite) orbit also joined the fray, along with the current cavalcade of dawn planets. A nice pass of the Hubble Space Telescope capped off the session as dawn broke, not bad.

A 2013 Orionid. Credit: UKMON
A 2013 Orionid. Credit: UKMON

The Orionids are noticeably speedy, flitting briefly in and out of view. Another great plus with this shower: The radiant is almost directly at the zenith for Florida residents at around 5 AM or so. This means that the Orionids can be enjoyed fairly far southward as well… has anyone ever studied just why a majority of major meteor shower radiants reside in the northern hemisphere?

The IMO hasn’t yet put up their live tracker yet, but hey, you can still report those Orionid rates worldwide…. We’ll see what Wednesday and Thursday morning brings as the Orionid meteor peak arrives. Unlike many showers, the Orionids have a very broad peak, and should be active all week into late October.

And don’t forget the tweet those sightings to #Meteorwatch!