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Orionid meteor shower: Q & A

October 20, 2012 |  5:00 am

Orionid meteor shower

If you've been looking to the skies this week, you may have seen the bright flashes of light indicating the arrival of the annual Orionid meteor shower.

While some of the meteors were visible as early as Wednesday, experts say Saturday night and early Sunday will be the prime time to spot the meteors as they streak across the the sky.

But what exactly causes the annual event?

ORIONID METEOR SHOWER: Best places to watch in L.A. region

Bill Cooke, who runs NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office, explains what you'll be seeing as well as shares some tips for making the most of your viewing experience.

Question: So what exactly is the Orionid meteor shower?

Answer: The Orionid is caused by pieces of debris left behind by Halley's Comet. Every year around mid-October, the debris hits the edge of the Earth's atmosphere, which causes it to burn up and creates the meteor shower we see. The debris is moving really fast -- roughly 148,000 mph -- and burns up when it hits the atmosphere, causing the flash of light we see.

Q: So what is the difference between a comet and a meteor?

A: Think of a comet as a big dirty snowball that is several miles across. Imagine a mountain-sized snowball. Now a meteor is a little chunk of that, a little piece, that has broken off. So imagine a baseball-sized piece of that mountain breaking off -- that's a meteor. 

Q: Is there any chance of one of these meteors hitting Earth?  

A: The Orionid meteors are way too fragile –- they’d burn up more than 60 miles above our head because they hit the atmosphere too fast. These things hit the Earth's atmosphere going 148,000 mph, which is seven times faster than the space shuttle during re-entry. The difference, too, is that the space shuttle has tiles to protect it from the heat. These meteors have no tiles -- they're like the kamikazes of the universe.

Q: What's the best way to see the meteor shower? 

A: The best way to see the shower is to lay flat on your back and look straight up. Use just your eyes -- you don’t need binoculars or a telescope -- because the meteors can appear anywhere in the sky so you need a broad view. All you need is a dark sky and your eyes. It usually takes about three minutes for your eyes to "dark adapt," so if someone wants to see the shower, you need to commit to spend a good hour outside.

Q: Any advice for trying to see the shower in L.A.?

A: My first advice for seeing it in L.A. would be to get out of L.A. If you are near bright city lights you'll only be able to see the brightest meteors, just a few of them an hour. What you need, to see the whole thing, is a dark sky, so people in downtown L.A. don't have much hope. The peak time is going to be between midnight and dawn, so this isn't something you're going to be able to stick your head out the window after dinner and see. You either need to stay up late or get up early.

Q: If you could watch the shower from anywhere in the U.S., where would you go?

A: Honestly, any spot with a dark sky. Location doesn't really matter for the Orionid meteors. Anybody located in North America should be able to get a good view right before dawn. If I could be anywhere, I'd probably go to the Southwest U.S., somewhere out in the desert.


Q: How does this meteor shower compare to others?

A: The Orionid is one of the better ones. The two best are the Perseids in August and the Geminids in December. The Geminid is probably the best -- with rates of more than 100 an hour. The Orionids are special because they are pieces of Halley's Comet. The last time Halley's Comet came past it wasn't that magnificent, and the next time it'll come around is in 2061, [when we also] don't expect it to be that magnificent. So we can console ourselves by looking up and seeing pieces of it burning up in our atmosphere.


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Photo: Orionid meteor shower as seen earlier in the week in Palo Alto. Credit: Associated Press