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

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(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).

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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!

Get Ready for the Fireballs of October

A recent fireball captured over the UK on October

On October 31st 2005, trick-or-treaters across the central U.S. eastern seaboard were treated to a brilliant fireball, a celestial spectacle that frequently graces October skies.

Mid- to late October is fireball season, a time when several key meteor showers experience a broad peak. We’re already seeing an uptick in fireball activity as monitored by numerous all-sky cameras this month, including NASA’s system positioned across the United States. Three lesser known but fascinating showers are the chief culprits.

Credit: NASA
A Bay area fireball captured in 2012. Credit: NASA/Robert P. Moreno Jr.

The main meteor shower on tap for the month of October is the Orionids. This shower radiates from the Club of the constellation Orion, and is the product of that most famous comet of them all, 1P Halley. Halley’s Comet is actually the source of two annual meteor showers, the October Orionids and the May Eta Aquarids. We’re seeing the inward stream of Halley debris in October, and Orionid velocities average a swift 66 kilometres a second. The radiant rides highest for northern hemisphere observers at 4 AM local, and 2014 sees an estimated zenithal hourly rate (ZHR) of 20 predicted to arrive on the mornings of October 21st through the 22nd. The Orionids experience a broad peak spanning October 21st through November 7th, and 2014 sees the peak arrive just two days prior to the Moon reaching New phase. The Orionids have exhibited an uptick in activity as high as 50-75 per hour from 2005-2007, and it’s been suggested that a 12 year peak cycle may govern the Orionids, as the path of meteoroid debris stream is modified by the gravitational influence of the giant planet Jupiter.

A recent early Orionid meteor. Credit: Sharin Ahmad @Shahgazer.

Two other nearby radiants in the sky also produce an exceptionally large number of fireballs in late October: the Southern Taurids and Northern Taurids. These are complex streams laid down by the periodic comet 2P Encke, which possesses the shortest orbital period of any comet known at 3.3 years. Though the ZHR for both is only slightly above the background sporadic rate for northern hemisphere Fall at about five per hour, the Taurids also produce a high ratio of fireballs. The southern Taurids peak in early October and are already active, and the Northern Taurids peak in late October through early November, earning them the nickname the “Fireballs of Halloween”. Unlike many meteor showers, the Northern Taurids are approaching the Earth from behind in our orbit and have a slow relative atmospheric entry velocity of 28 kilometres per second. This makes for long, stately meteor trains often visible in the evening hours before local midnight.

A 2012 Taurid meteor. Credit: Andrei Juralve.

The Taurids also seem to exhibit a seven year periodicity that begs for further study. 2008 was a fine year for Taurid fireballs… could 2015 be next?

Of course, the exact definition of a “fireball” meteor varies by source, though we prefer the definition of a fireball as a meteor brighter than magnitude -3. A fireball reaching -14 (a Full Moon equals magnitude -13, about 2.5 times fainter) is often termed a bolide.

Halley's orbit
Comet 1P/Halley’s orbital path through the inner solar system. (Credit: NASA/JPL).

Observing meteor showers such as the Orionids is as simple as sitting back and patiently watching the skies. Our own personal rule while starting a meteor vigil is to scan the skies for 10 minutes; one or more meteor sightings is a good sign to keep on watching, while no meteors means it’s time to pack it in and instead maybe write about astronomy. Dark, moonless skies are key, and you can report how many meteors you see to the International Meteor Organization. Be sure to keep a pair of binoculars handy to examine any lingering smoke trails post-fireball passage.

Credit: Stellarium
The positions of the radiants of the Orionids and the Taurids, with peak dates. Credit: Stellarium.

Of course, seeing a Taurid fireball is largely a matter of luck and looking at the right place in the sky at the right time. All-sky cameras work great in this regard, and many amateurs now use tripod mounted DLSRs set to take wide-field exposures of the sky automatically throughout the night. Just watch out for dew! Nearly every meteor we’ve caught on camera turned up only in post review, a testament to how much of the sky a lone pair of eyes still misses.

Spot a fireball? The American Meteor Society maintains a great online database of recent sightings and reports. Keep in mind, lots of “meteor-wrongs” inevitably crop up on Facebook and Twitter during any event, posted by folks eager for likes and retweets. Faves of such spoofers are: the Peekskill meteor train, the reentry of Hyabusa, Mir, and scenes (!) from the movie Armageddon. We’ve seen ‘em all passed off as legit, though you’re more than welcome to try and be original… a majority of initial meteor images almost always come from dash cams (remember Chelyabinsk?) and security cameras.

Finally, in addition to fireballs, there’s another astronomical tie-in for Halloween, as it’s one of four cross-quarter tie-in days approximately mid-way between a solstice and an equinox. The other three are: Lammas Day (August 1st), Groundhog’s Day (February 2nd) and May Day (May 1st). We just think that it’s great — if a bit paradoxical — to see modern day suburbanites dress up as ghouls and goblins as they reenact archaic rites and holidays…

Don’t forget to keep an eye out for the fireballs of October this Halloween!