This October, the last month before the election will be bookended with shooting stars. Coincidence? Maybe, maybe not. But apart from begging to be wished upon, what does the Orionid meteor shower mean? In 2016, it won't be quite as visibly stunning as it usually is, but it's no less meaningful for it.
First, it helps to understand what this particular meteor shower actually is. The Orionids are dust remnants from Halley's Comet, arguably the most famous celestial event ever. Halley makes it way around the sun approximately every 76 years; the next time it will be visible from Earth will be in 2061. Though for most people, viewing Halley's Comet is a once in a lifetime event, the Orionids are a consolation prize, an annual show of "falling stars" trailing from it that last for a pretty considerable amount of time. (In 2016, the Orionids started on Oct. 2 and will continue through Nov. 7, peaking on Oct. 20 and 21.)
Halley's Comet is named for British astronomer Edmond Halley, who studied reports of a comet approaching the Earth in 1531, 1607 and 1682 — and although he didn't live to see it, he correctly predicted Halley's return in 1758. Though the earliest known sighting of Halley's Comet was recorded by Chinese astronomers in 239 B.C.E., it wasn't until the 1700s that it was realized to be the same comet, returning.
Chinese astronomers were also the first to record incidences of meteor showers. In 687 B.C.E., Zui Zhuan wrote, "...at midnight, the stars dropped down like rain." It was later determined he was witnessing the Lyrid meteor shower, which will next be visible for us in April 2017.
Unsurprisingly, an event as visually stunning as a meteor shower has inspired a number of beliefs throughout history. The Greeks, for example, believed that shooting stars were the souls of the deceased; both Christians and Jews thought them to be fallen angels or demons. Ptolemy, the Greek astronomer, believed that the gods, overcome with curiosity, would peer down at Earth from between the spheres, often losing their grip on a few stars. It was Ptolemy's theory that launched the tradition of wishing on a falling star, as they were evidence that the gods were paying attention, at least for a few moments.
This year, the Orionid meteor shower will peak on the nights of Oct. 20 and 21, with 15 to 20 meteors shooting across the sky during just after midnight and right before dusk. (In years past, this number has been upwards of 70). With all the incredible celestials goings-on this year, from supermoons to eclipses, I am honestly okay with the fact that 2016's Orionids will be a subdued affair. Here's how to see it. Enjoy!
Images: Giphy (2)