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Tonight will be the ideal time to view the annual Orionids meteor shower.

Orionid meteors are known for their brightness and for their speed. According to NASA, these meteors travel at about 148,000 mph into the Earth’s atmosphere and can leave glowing “trains”—incandescent bits of debris in the wake of the meteor—which last for several seconds to minutes.

“A meteor shower is when the Earth’s orbit crosses a comet’s orbit,” said Harry “Hap” McSween, chancellor’s professor emeritus in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. He describes comets as “dirty snowballs with lots of dust.”

“Comets shed that dust as they travel around the sun. If that dust trail crosses the Earth’s orbital plane, then the Earth will move through that dust each year.”

The dust that creates the Orionids originate from Halley’s Comet—officially named 1P/Halley—which takes about 76 years to orbit the sun once. The last time Halley’s Comet was seen by casual observers was in 1986; it will not enter the inner solar system again until 2061.

McSween said that these dusty trails last for many years or decades. There are eight annual meteor showers observable from Earth that represent debris left by different comets. The showers are named for a star or a constellation that is close to where the meteors appear in the sky. Read more about meteor showers and when they are visible.

Interested in trying to photograph the shower? Get NASA’s tips for success.

CONTACT:

Karen Dunlap (865-974-8674, kdunlap6@utk.edu)