Although the world’s best-known comet is presently more than 3 billion miles from Earth — much farther away than the most distant planet, Uranus; and out there in the coldest, darkest reaches of the solar system with the dwarf planet Pluto — this weekend Earth drifts across Halley’s orbit.
When Earth drifts through the past track of a comet, we see shooting stars. Each shooting star is the fiery flameout of a small bit of debris burning up in the upper reaches of Earth’s atmosphere.
When Earth passes through the debris stream of Comet Halley each year around Oct. 21-22, we are treated to the so-called Orionid meteor shower.
The meteor shower this weekend is called the Orionids because all of the shooting stars that are part of Comet Halley’s debris stream will appear to emanate from the constellation Orion.
That doesn’t mean that you have to look for Orion to see Orionid shooting stars. Orionid shooting stars can be seen just about anywhere in the sky — but, if you were to imaginatively extend backward the streak of each one, all the streaks would appear to come from the middle of the constellation Orion.
Orion doesn’t rise until late at night, and is overhead to the south in the predawn hours this time of year. An early-morning expedition outdoors on Saturday or Sunday will reveal the sky above in fine form.
In addition to maybe catching a shooting star or two, you can see brilliant Jupiter to the southwest and red Mars with an old, waning crescent moon to the east.
Anticipating that after reading this column you might plan to set your alarm this weekend in the hopes of seeing the sky streaked by shooting stars, one after another, I have been advised by legal counsel to include the following terms-of-service agreement and disclaimer:
“I (insert your name here) agree not to get my hopes up too high when I set my alarm for 4 a.m. to go outside to watch for Orionid shooting stars on Saturday/Sunday (circle one or both). I understand that it is dark at 4 a.m. I understand that I might get cold, and that I might encounter wildlife; including — but not limited to — deer, turkeys, skunks, dogs, cats and crazed early-morning joggers; and that after patiently scanning the sky for an hour, I will at best count maybe 15 shooting stars.
“I further agree that Doug Furton is in no way responsible for any fatigue, crabbiness and/or lack of household productivity due to afternoon napping; or any parental or marital strife such fatigue, crabbiness and napping, directly or indirectly, causes as a result of any expressed or implied suggestion to wake up and go outside at 4 a.m.”
If you intend to act on anything written here, please cut out and return a signed copy of this agreement to me by midnight Friday.
— By Doug Furton, a member of the physics faculty at GVSU. Send questions and suggestions (and signed disclaimers) to firstname.lastname@example.org.