Meteor shower alert: 2011 Orionids are on their way
Sky watchers, mark your calendars: The 2011 Orionid meteor shower is on its way, and scientists say it's expected to peak just before dawn on Oct. 21 and 22, otherwise known as Friday and Saturday of this week.
The Orionids occur each October as the Earth passes through a trail of dust left by Halley's comet. When one of those dust particles — about the size of a grain of sand — enters Earth's atmosphere, it excites the air molecules through which it passes, causing them to give off light.
The annual shower has been dubbed the Orionids because the meteors appear to be emanating from the constellation Orion.
This hasn't been a great year for meteor shower watchers. The Perseids in August were all but obstructed by a full moon, and the Draconids this month might have been spectacular if we could have seen them. Alas, they peaked during daylight hours in the U.S.
Sky watchers can expect similar disappointing conditions for the Orionids.
Don Yeomans, manager of NASA's Near-Earth Object Program Office, explained that a large, waning crescent moon will be in view when the Orionids peak.
And here's some more bad news: The moon will also interfere with the peak of the Leonids meteor shower in November.
"The moon has just decided to wash out the meteor storms this year," Yeomans told The Times. "They are a subtle phenomena and you really need a dark sky. A bright moon nearby really ruins the show."
Still, Yeomans said, if you happen to be awake at 5 a.m. on Friday or Saturday, and especially if you live away from the city lights, it can't hurt to look skyward.
"It's not going to knock your socks off this year, but if you are out in the desert or up in the mountains, it is certainly worth a look," he said.
-- Deborah Netburn
Photo: A meteor shower in 2001 at Joshua Tree. Credit: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times