Catch a shooting star – the Orionids are here!
In the early hours of 22 October, make sure you are somewhere dark, then lean back and watch the night sky. You will be rewarded with a thrilling display of shooting stars, because It’s time for the annual Orionid meteor shower.
Shooting stars are up there with rainbows on our list of favourite celestial events. But what are they exactly, what causes them to shoot across the sky and, most importantly, do wishes made on shooting stars come true?
Here’s all the answers, along with some fascinating facts about the Orionids.
What is a shooting star?
Let’s start with the important bit: shooting stars are not stars. Sorry!
Comets orbit the sun, millions of light years from us. They leave a trail of debris in their wake and meteor showers happen when the earth crosses paths with this debris every year on its own orbit of the sun. The ‘stars’ are created when the debris briefly burns up as it enters the earth’s atmosphere.
There are around 30 meteor showers every year that we can easily spot, and the Orionids are among the most visible, along with the Perseids in August, the Leonids in November, the Geminids in December and Taurids in January.
What are the Orionids?
The Orionids are the tiny particles of debris left in the wake of our most famous comet, Halley’s Comet. Halley’s comet was named after its discoverer, Edmund Halley, who worked out that it appeared roughly every 76 years and its next appearance would be 1758. He was right, but sadly didn’t live to witness it.
Halley’s Comet is next due to appear in 2061 but luckily we don’t have to wait until then for its meteor show, for we are just about to hurtle headlong into its stream of debris once again, as we do every year.
Photo credit: NASA
You might be wondering why the meteor shower is not called Halley’s meteor shower. It’s because meteor showers are named after the constellation from which they appear to radiate - called the radiant point - rather than the comet from which they originate. In the case of the Orionids, the radiant point is, you’ve guessed it, the constellation of Orion the Hunter. What’s amazing is that the Orionids are in fact light years away from Orion and only about 60 miles from earth.
How to see the Orionids
The wonderful thing about meteor showers is that you don’t need any specialist equipment or knowledge to see them. Meteor showers are visible to the naked eye and, in the case of the Orionids, will produce up to 20 shooting stars per hour. In fact, they are best seen with the naked eye, as telescopes and binoculars are more effective for objects that appear stationary.
This year, the moon is almost at its fullest, so it will brighten up the sky and make it more difficult to see the Orionids. However, these simple tips should mean that you will see enough to make all your wishes come true – weather permitting of course!
• Head to somewhere dark, such as the countryside, moorland or of course, a Forest Holidays location. Light pollution from cities and towns seriously limits the visibility of shooting stars
• Allow yourself a full 20 minutes for your eyes to adjust to the dark
• Although the radiant point of the meteor shower is Orion, you will see the stars shooting right across the sky, so you can look anywhere
• Now wait; be patient and keep your gaze focused on one part of the sky. You will eventually be rewarded with the magical sight of shooting stars. Have your wish ready…
• Timing is key too. The peak of the celestial firework display is around 2.00am but that’s also the time that the moon has risen in the sky. Alternatively, and slightly more sociably, just before midnight there will be some shooting stars and less moonlight
• The weather is important. If it’s overcast or cloudy, stay cosy indoors and wait for the Leonids in November!
Stargazing in the forest
One of the best ways to see the night sky is when you’re surrounded by very few light sources. We make a real effort to cut out light pollution at Forest Holidays and this opens up the night sky in a way you may never have seen before. Top locations for stargazing from the comfort of your cabin – or even your hot tub, are Thorpe Forest, Forest of Dean and Cropton, which all have some cabins in less wooded areas. Ardgartan Argyll and Strathyre too, offer open views across the lochs.
If you’re not ready for a last-minute break, you can book in time for the Leonids, which peak on 17-18 November, or the Geminids on 13-14 December, for a magical pre-Christmas break.
If your stargazing interest is piqued, you can find out more about the stars you will see year-round on a Forest Holiday here and, for more stargazing tips, read our interview with astronomer, Steve Bowden – A beginner’s Guide to Stargazing.
As for whether wishes made on a shooting star come true or not…of course they come true!