Sometimes You’re the Planet. Sometimes You’re the Meteor.

Orionid meteor striking the sky below Milky Way and to the right of en:Venus. en:Zodiacal light is also seen at the image The trail of the meteor appears slightly curved due to edge distortion in the lens
Orionid Meteor Shower by Mila Zinkova

When we talk about meteor showers, most of us think of tiny rocks blazing through the sky, some eventually plummeting to Earth. The thing is the meteors really aren’t raining down upon us. Consider them a swarm of bees that happen to be hovering (at a speed of 41 miles (66 km) per second) along our orbital highway  going in the opposite direction of Earth, when our planet smacks right into them during its road trip around the sun.

Most meteor showers are comprised of  a clustering of meteoroids, bits of interplanetary rock, icy dust, and debris, streamed behind by comets on their journey around the sun. When these meteoroids encounter our upper atmosphere, they ignite as a result of the friction. Most streak parallel trajectories, crash, and burn almost 80 miles above the Earth’s surface. These have been commonly known as shooting or falling stars for centuries. The few that survive the atmosphere impact and hit the Earth are called meteorites.
Although the Orionid Meteor Shower will continue into the first week of November, it peaked on October 21, 2010. Meteor showers are named from constellations near their radiant point, the place in the sky from which they appear to originate. The shower that appears in the night sky during one week in late October seems to originate from Betelgeuse‘s (I still think of Michael Keaton as Betelgeuse when I read that word) position as Orion‘s shoulder.
Austrailian Astronomer Andrew Fitzgeraldsays the Orionid meteor shower is brighter, faster and more prolific than other showers. “The Orionids tend to be bright and they’re quick, often yellow [in] colour as well so they’re fairly distinctive. There’s other showers that are active but they will look different. There’s another shower called the Taurids which is also active, so if you see something slow, that’s Torrid and if you something fast, most likely it’s an Orionid.”

Orionids is not only competing with another meteor shower. The almost-full waxing gibbous moon is also factoring into shower observation. It will be full on the 23rd. Another celestial object, Comet Hartley 2, will loose visibility until later this month due to its shining competition. Jupiter is the brightest object near our moon at present.

Halley’s Cometorbits the sun every 76 years and passed by Earth last in 1986. I was ten. In the two places it comes closest to Earth along its path,  we experience meteor showers. The Orionids Meteor Shower is comprised of  the portion of Halley’s Comet’s cosmic stream the Earth passes through in October while the Eta Aquariids are its counterpart that occur in May. I think of Mark Twain when I read about Halley’s Comet

In 1909 he wrote: “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.” On April 20, 1910 one day after Halley’s Comet brushed Earth Samuel Langhorne Clemens died in Redding, Connecticut of a heart attack.

I think for that reason alone comets make me think of time. Meteor showers make me feel small. I wonder about these bits and pieces left behind by great space travelers as they circle the sun. I long to see Halley’s Comet again, not because I want to live so long. Longevity isn’t at the heart of this desire. I just want to SEE it with my own eyes one more time. I wonder if I will. Thank you, Kay for pointing me to the path in the meantime. I know where the markers are in the journey now.

I encourage you to check out the many links in this post. I referred to many in writing this post. Some will give you viewing schedules, show you diagrams of Orion, discuss the dying star that is Betelgeuse, while others will give you a fresh sense of discovery and the history that lives behind space observation. The link for Halley’s Comet also demonstrates the cultural impact such celestial events have made over human history. Below is a link that takes you to a list of fictional comets and occurences of real comets in fiction.

Please comment with your thoughts on this post and perhaps consider sharing a story about viewing a comet or a meteor shower. Tell me what inspires you about them. Have you read any great stories about celestial events that you would recommend?

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