Fast-moving Orionids from Halley’s Comet debris field create dazzling meteor shower

ST. GEORGE — Framed by some of the brightest stars in the sky, thanks to the constellation Orion, the annual Orionid meteor shower is now ascending to its peak, which will take place in the early morning hours Monday.

In 1986, the European spacecraft Giotto encounters the nucleus of Halley’s Comet as it recedes from the sun. | Photo taken by Halley Multicolor Camera Team, courtesy of NASA, St. George News

The Orionid meteor shower is a week-long shower that typically falls at the end of October when the Earth makes its annual trek through the stream of debris left in the wake of Halley’s Comet, said to be the most famous “periodic” comet that returns to its earthly neighborhood every 75 years or so.

The comet’s last flyby was in 1986, with the next visit to the inner solar system expected to take place in 2061.

During this period of time, Orionid meteors will be visible whenever the shower’s radiant or origin point – the constellation Orion – is above the horizon, with the number of meteors increasing as the radiant point moves higher in the sky. In a normal year, the Orionids typically produce approximately 10-20 meteors per hour; however, peak years have seen as many as the more dramatic annual Perseid shower.

The Orionid meteors appear to originate from the northern part of Orion, which many see as “Orion the Hunter” a large constellation with a distinctive row of three medium-bright stars in the middle which represent Orion’s Belt.

The constellation Orion is the radiant point for the Orionid meteor shower | Image courtesy of, St. George News

While the Orionid shower is not the year’s strongest meteor shower, these meteors are fast. Traveling at a rate of more than 40 miles per second, or roughly 148,000 mph, Orionids are extremely fast meteors, and as a result, nearly half of them will leave “persistent trains,” or ionized gas trails that last for a few seconds after the meteor itself has gone. Fast meteors can also become fireballs that can produce prolonged explosions of light, according to NASA.  

This meteor shower will be visible over a large area of the sky, with the greatest number visible in the hours before dawn — or when Earth passes through the densest part of Halley’s debris stream.

In Southern Utah, the shower will be visible shortly after 11 p.m. each night, when its radiant point rises above the horizon to the East, and will remain active until dawn breaks shortly after 7 a.m. The brightest displays will be around 6 a.m. when the shower’s radiant point is at its highest in the sky – according to In The Sky.

Southern Utah has an advantage this year, as the Earth’s rotation places the region in the optimal position facing the incoming meteors to view the celestial display raining vertically downwards as it produces short trails close to the radiant point.

At other times, the meteors will be coming in at an oblique angle, which will result in fewer meteors burning up over the region, but they will be long-lived space rocks that can travel quite a distance across the sky before completely burning up.

Snow Canyon State Park will be hosting a viewing party Saturday at 5:30 a.m. Space is limited, and registration is required by calling 435-628-2255.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2019, all rights reserved.

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