Image: Draconid meteors, October 2011
Jesper Grønne
This long-exposure image taken by Jesper Grønne in Denmark shows many Draconid meteors streaking out of the sky, October 2011.
updated 10/21/2011 4:10:04 PM ET 2011-10-21T20:10:04

Early bird skywatchers set your alarms: The annual October meteor shower will peak before sunrise on Saturday as the Earth passes through a stream of leftover dust from the famous Halley's Comet.

The Orionid meteor shower promises to offer skywatchers with a dark sky and good weather up to 15 meteors per hour at its peak, according to a NASA forecast.

"Although this isn't the biggest meteor shower of the year, it's definitely worth waking up for," said Bill Cooke, head of the NASA Meteoroid Environment Office, in a statement. "The setting is dynamite."

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The Orionids will emanate from a point in the southeastern sky (as viewed from the northern mid-latitudes) near the raised arm of Orion the Hunter, the constellation that gives them their name. From there, they streak across Taurus the Bull, the twins of Gemini, Leo the Lion, and Canis Major.

The sky map of the Orionid meteor shower here shows where to look to see the "shooting star" display.

The Orionids are visible each year, even though Halley's comet only swings by about every 75 years. This is because comets leave a trail of volatile ices and dust along their orbital path that hangs around long after the comets have come and gone.

This year, some of the Orionids will also appear to pass through a "celestial triangle" formed by the crescent moon, Mars and Regulus, a star in the constellation Leo. Others may even collide with the moon, and Cooke says this presents a great opportunity for amateur skywatchers and scientists alike.

Unlike Earth, the moon has no atmosphere to intercept and burn up meteoroids, so pieces of debris reach the surface and explode where they hit.

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"Some explode with energies exceeding hundreds of pounds of TNT," Cooke said. These lunar crashes could produce flashes so bright they can sometimes be seen through backyard telescopes.

By observing these collisions, Cooke and his colleagues are able to learn about the structure of comet debris streams and the energy of the particles within them. Since the start of their monitoring program in 2005, they've seen 15 Orionids hit the moon: two in 2007, four in 2008, and nine in 2009, Cooke said. 

This year looks promising as one-quarter of the moon's dark terrain will be exposed to Halley's debris stream, so the team has millions of square miles to scan for explosions, he added.

As Halley swings in a huge orbital loop around the sun, it passes near the plane of Earth's orbit in two places (the first as it swings inward to the inner solar system, the other as it leaves). The gas and dust shed by the comet, therefore, is encountered by Earth twice a year.

Earth passes through the first patch of comet Halley debris in early May, giving rise to the annual Eta Aquarid meteor shower. The pass the second pass occurs every year in late October, giving rise to the Orionids.

Editor's note: If you snap a great photo of the Orionid meteor shower and would like to share the image and your comments for a possible image gallery or story, please contact managing editor Tariq Malik at

Natalie Wolchover (@ nattyover ) is a staff writer for Life's Little Mysteries, a sister site to For the latest in space science and exploration news, follow on Twitter @Spacedotcomand on Facebook.

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Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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