Tonight, in the wee hours, dedicated star watchers and people just looking for a good celestial show will turn their faces up to the heavens to watch the annual Orionid meteor shower.
The Orionids are so named because the meteors appear to radiate from near the constellation Orion, aka the Hunter. This easily spotted constellation "kind of looks like an hourglass with a very recognizable belt of stars," said astronomer Mark Hammergren [National Geographic News].
The "shooting stars" are really tiny fragments of debris left behind in space by Halley's Comet, which loops through the inner solar system every 76 years and leaves a trail of dust in its wake. Most fragments are tiny, only about the size of a grain of sand--but they still go out in a blaze of glory as they vaporize in the Earth's upper atmosphere.
The best time to watch will be between 1 a.m. and dawn local time Wednesday morning, regardless of your location. That's when the patch of Earth you are standing on is barreling headlong into space on Earth's orbital track, and meteors get scooped up like bugs on a windshield [SPACE.com].
Tonight's star gazers will benefit from a dark, moonless sky. NASA scientist Bill Cooke says the
Orionids have been strong in recent years. "Since 2006, the Orionids have been one of the best showers of the year, with counts of 60 or more meteors per hour" [SPACE.com].
Related Content: 80beats: For the World’s Best Stargazing, Head to Antarctica 80beats: Perseid Meteor Shower Should Dazzle Despite a Bright Moon DISCOVER: 20 Things You Didn't Know About... MeteorsImage: iStockphoto