‘Beetlejuice’ sparks? Meteor shower brings 'shooting stars' and 'earthgrazers'

The increasing intensity of the annual Orionid meteor shower will be on full display Saturday night and Sunday morning as most of the US faces a cold, clear, moonless night – the perfect celestial screen.

Phil Terzian/AP
A shooting star above the Montebello Open Space Preserve in Palo Alto, Calif. Streaking fireballs lighting up the skies are part of a major meteor shower, and the show is just getting started.

Projected clear skies and low moonlight across much of the country Saturday night and Sunday morning will help fans of celestial phenomena witness a peak of whizzing visitors across the sky as part of the annual Orionid meteor shower.

Sky gazers can expect as many as 60 meteors an hour as the earth crashes into icy remnants abandoned by Halley’s Comet when it shot by the planet in 1986. The meteor shower will originate near the orange-glowing Betelgeuse star that makes up the right shoulder of Orion (The Hunter), most easily found by his conspicuous belt of stars.

The objects are boulders of ice and rock breaking into the atmosphere at about 148,000 miles per hour. Most sizzle and burn, creating “shooting stars” and even “earthgrazers” that span the sky. Larger chunks may actually explode into fireballs loud enough to hear down here on earth.

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(A large chunk of asteroid that entered the atmosphere and exploded just off the coast of northern California on Wednesday, in some cases shaking houses, was likely not part of the Orionids, NASA says.)

According to Weather.com, large sections of the Atlantic, the South, the Midwest, and Coastal West are likely to see crystal clear skies overnight. The moon has just begun to wax, meaning moonlight interference will be low.

Philosophers have long pondered the stars, but the Orionids usually inspire poetics even among the country’s most hardened space scientists. (For others who want to gush or chat, NASA will have its experts on hand starting Saturday night at this link.)

“The Orionid meteor shower isn’t the strongest, but it’s one of the most beautiful showers of the year,” says Bill Cooke, head of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office.

Tony Phillips, who blogs at spaceweather.com, explains why in a NASA post.

“The shower is framed by some of the brightest stars and planets in the heavens,” he writes. “Constellations such as Taurus, Gemini, and Orion provide a glittering backdrop for the display. But that’s not all. This year, Venus and Jupiter have moved into position with Sirius, the Dog Star, to form a bright triangle in the eastern pre-dawn sky. On the morning of Oct 21st, blazing pieces of Halley’s Comet will cut straight through the heart of this celestial triad.”

NASA has a few suggestions for how to optimize the show. The best display is likely to be two hours before sunrise, when Orion will be straight overhead. The meteors will burst from near Betelgeuse, but will spray across the entire sky. And remember: don’t blink.

“Be prepared for speed,” says Mr. Cooke, according to NASA. “Only the November Leonids are faster.”

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