August’s Perseid meteor shower may be the most well known of the year, but it’s the last quarter of the year that brings the most shooting-star and fireball action to night skies.
As of this week, both the Orionid and Southern Taurid meteor showers are active and the little known Daytime Sextantid shower is peaking now.
The Sextantids are often ignored for obvious reasons because they’re oriented in such a way that they’re typically impacting our atmosphere during the day and therefore washed out by sunlight. However lucky observers may be able to catch one in the hour before dawn, when they can sometimes be seen shooting straight upward from the eastern horizon. This unusual shower peaks Wednesday, making Thursday morning the ideal time to go looking for the rare upward-shooting meteor.
Fortunately, the pre-dawn hours are also a good time to look for the other meteor showers active now.
While the Orionids aren’t set to peak until around Oct. 20, they still add some shooting stars to each night’s sky until then. The Taurids, on the other hand, don’t have a very defined peak and are forecast to be visible at a rate of around two per hour over the next several weeks.
Adding to the celestial drama is the Taurids’ reputation for delivering a number of bright fireballs streaking through the sky.
“In 2022, the Earth passed through a swarm of Taurid fireballs,” writes Bob Lunsford for the American Meteor Society. “This year we are further from this swarm but will still encounter some fireball activity.”
The Taurids can be traced to debris from the comet 2P/Encke, while the Orionids are connected to the leavings of the famed Halley’s Comet, which visits the inner solar system only about every 75 years. The celebrity snowball won’t be back until 2061.
Two distinct clouds from Halley’s Comet are responsible for both the Orionids each October and the Eta Aquariids meteor shower in May.
How to see the celestial show
When the Orionids peak between Oct 20 and 22, the conditions should be nearly perfect, especially with the moonless sky on the morning of the 22nd in the hours just before dawn. Most nights, the area near the constellation of Orion the Hunter where the Orionids appear to radiate from will be highest in the sky around 2 a.m. But it may be possible to see the meteors anytime between midnight and dawn. The closer you get to dawn, the better your chance of seeing one of those vertical Sextantids as well.
The Orionids are known for zipping through the sky at relatively high speed and often leaving long trains that can linger for a second or two.
During those peak mornings, the number of Orionid meteors will suddenly increase to between 10 and 20 per hour, but sometimes Earth passes through a particularly dense pocket of debris and those rates shoot up to 50 to 70, rivaling the Perseids.
While it’s worth marking the Orionids’ peak on your calendar, you might be able to catch a handful of meteors and a fireball on any given night over the next several weeks.
If you have at least an hour free on a night with clear skies and a location away from light pollution, all you need to do is find an area with a broad view of the night sky. Allow at least 15 minutes for your eyes to adjust to the darkness and then just relax, lie back and watch.
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You’ll hear seasoned skywatchers talking about orienting yourself to face the radiant of a particular meteor shower. The radiant is the section of the sky from which certain meteors will appear to radiate outward. Meteor showers are usually named for a constellation within that radiant, so the Orionids are named for Orion.
If you can locate Orion in the sky and orient yourself in that direction, it might boost your viewing experience slightly. But the reality is that most amateurs won’t notice a difference. It’s far more important to have dark skies away from light pollution and the widest view of the sky possible. While meteors might originate from a certain radiant, they go all over the sky from that point, so it really doesn’t matter much which way you face.
Plus, there are more than Orionids up there on most nights. There are also the aforementioned Taurids, smaller showers like the Anthelion and even sporadic meteors that aren’t part of defined showers.
So just plan for at least an hour outside, preferably between midnight and dawn, for the best chance to make it through lulls in activity and spotting a few meteors. Be sure to bring all you need to be comfortable that long: Blankets, snacks and drinks are a good idea. Good luck!