Every October, fragments of the famed Haley's comet dance across the sky in the much-anticipated Orionid meteor shower. This year, the light given off by the nearly full moon during the shower peak last night obscured the show for many sky watchers. But all is not lost. The night sky offers many opportunities to explore stars, meteors, and comets throughout the year, says Smithsonian astrophysicist and Harvard lecturer Sean Andrews.
In three weeks, the Leonid meteor shower will splash across the sky, though Dr. Andrews expects that the moon might once again outshine the shower. He suggests that families might have better luck catching the Gemonid meteor shower on Dec. 12 and 13. “It might be cold, but the moon is not going to be obstructive,” he says.
There is also a major comet that could potentially come into view some time in the next several weeks. “No one really knows when this will happen or if we’ll get to see it,” Andrews says. “It’s very close in the sky to the sun so you can’t see it until it gets further away.” He expects that in a few weeks astronomers might have better predictions for when to look for the comet.
However, families need not wait for an astrological event to explore the night sky, Andrews says. Local amateur astronomy organizations routinely host stargazing events and welcome young would-be astronomers. Area universities frequently open up their observatories and telescopes to the public.
Last year, we offered suggestions for families hoping to glimpse the heavens together. These are not unique to the Orionids. Stargazing and astronomical events offer kids and families a chance to venture into the quiet dark to glimpse the heavens.
Waking them up in the middle of the night in and of itself creates a tone for the event, setting the stage for a magical moment that will probably last their lifetimes.
That moment, however brief, when parent and child gaze in awe as remnants of a distant world cross over into theirs, sharing gasps, locking astonished eyes, squeezing hands in exhilaration, that is the stuff that memories are made of.