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How to See the 2021 Orionids Meteor Shower

Orion is one of the most recognizable constellations in the sky, thanks to its bright stars and clear shape. This northern constellation is most visible in the winter months, and goes by the nickname “The Hunter” as the stars’ shape appears to point at the neighboring bull, Taurus. Additionally, Orion is home to one of the few nebulae that can be seen with the unaided eye: the Orion Nebula, or Messier 42.

But that’s not all that makes Orion special. It’s also the radiant point for one of the major meteor showers each year, which happens in the quick succession of meteoric activity in the autumn months. Each October, Orionid meteors appear to come from this part of the sky, inspiring astronomers, astrophotographers, and amateurs to bundle up and head out to try and see them.

If you have your heart set on seeing this year’s Orionids meteor shower, read on for everything you need to know to see Orionid meteors in 2021.

Featured image credit: Mike Lewinski via Flickr

When to See the Orionids

Orionids Meteor Shower
Photo credit: Mike Lewinski via Flickr

Like most meteor showers, there are two important sets of dates to keep in mind when you try to see the Orionids:

  • The Orionids meteor shower will occur from October 2 to November 7 this year; during this window, there is a varying amount of meteoric activity that you can see on any given night from the radiant point near the constellation Orion.
  • The Orionids meteor shower will peak in the pre-dawn hours of October 21 in 2021. On this night (or, more accurately, morning) you’ll see the most meteoric activity.

When most people ask “when can you see the Orionids,” they’re inquiring about those peak nights – October 21 this year.

The Peak of the Orionids in 2021

Orionids Meteor Shower
Photo credit: Mike Lewinski via Flickr

Let’s break down the idea of a “peak” during a meteor shower a little bit more. Basically, when a meteor shower occurs, the earth passes through a stream of debris left by a comet or asteroid. In the case of the Orionids, the debris which form the Orionids meteor shower is left by Halley’s Comet. Arguably the most famous comet, Halley’s Comet has an orbital period of 75 years, and last whizzed past earth in 1986 and added to the stream of debris it has left each time it passes.

This trail of debris is more dispersed on the outer limits, and more densely populated with meteoroids near the middle. So when a meteor shower like the Orionids begins (and ends), the meteor activity is less – we’re passing through a less dense part of the comet’s trail; as we approach (and leave) the peak days, the meteor activity gets more frequent. On those peak nights, when we experience the greatest meteor activity since we’re passing through the densest part of the debris trail.

Astronomers describe the “greatest meteor activity” using a metric called Zenithal Hourly Rate (ZHR). This is the maximum (zenith) rate of meteors you’ll see in an hour.

All that is to say: the peak of the Orionids will occur on October 21. On this night, the ZHR will be around 15 meteors per hour. In some years, meteor activity has surged up to 80 meteors per hour, but recent years have been more like 20-30 meteors per hour.

Unfortunately, on the night of October 21, the moon will be around 97% illuminated. This is not a good thing; the bring moon will interfere with your ability to see Orionids through much of the night.

Where to See the Orionids

Night Sky December - NGC 1981 in Orion
Photo credit: Rockwell McGellin via Flickr

When you ask “where can I see the Orionids?,” again – there are two answers:

  1. The first answer is about where you can see the Orionids in the night sky
  2. The second is about where you should go on earth to see the Orionids

Let’s break each one down.

The Orionids take their name from the constellation Orion, an easily recognizable constellation in the northern hemisphere winter sky. The reason the Orionids are named after the constellation Orion is that they appear to radiate from a point near the constellation; this is called the “radiant point.”

So regarding the first answer to where to see the Orionids, the answer is: near the constellation Orion. As long as you’re in the northern hemisphere and can see Orion above the horizon (use a star-finder app, like Night Sky), you should be able to see Orionid meteors. (Orion won’t rise until about 11pm on the night of October 20 and will set around 7am on the morning of October 21.)

In terms of where on earth to see the Orionids, there’s a lot of flexibility. Obviously, as mentioned, you need to be in the northern hemisphere, since Orion is a northern constellation. Also, it helps to be in a dark sky location, rather than near a city or town with bright lights. The darker the sky you can drive to, the better experience you’ll have! Here are more tips on seeing how to see the Orionids this year.

Tips on Seeing the Orionids Meteor Shower

Night Sky Events - Orionids Meteor Shower - Mike Lewinski via Flickr
Photo credit: Mike Lewinski via Flickr

Here’s a quick list of tips to help make your Orionid viewing a success:

  • Find a dark sky location. Use our city stargazing guides to find a place 1-2 hours from where you live, or peruse our World Space Tourism Guide to find dark sky places around the globe.
  • Plan for a night during peak activity. As mentioned, the peak of the Orionids will be around October 21, which is a Thursday. If you wait until Friday, October 20, your chances will still be good to see meteors, but not at the same rate as the night before.
  • Look throughout the whole sky, rather than focusing on the radiant point. While the radiant point is helpful in trying to spot meteors, it’s actually better to scan the whole sky around the radiant point so you’ll see Orionids as they streak away from that area.
  • Bring layers. It gets chilly at night, no matter where in the world you live! Bring extra clothing so your night of spotting meteors isn’t affected by being cold!

Special Equipment for Viewing the Orionids

Orionids Meteor Shower
Photo credit: Mike Lewinski via Flickr

You don’t need any special equipment to view the Orionids meteor shower, which is great. A telescope and binoculars won’t really work because meteors move so fast as they enter the atmosphere – your eyes alone are good enough!

If you want to try and photograph meteors, here are some resources to help:

In general, the best thing to do is find a shutter speed, aperture, and ISO setting that allow you to capture the stars and any meteors in the frame you’re shooting. You may or may not see meteors with your eyes, but if you have your camera settings right, they’ll show up in the photos! (Many astrophotographers discover meteors in their photos even on non-meteor shower nights!)

Do you have any other questions about trying to see the 2021 Orionids meteor shower? let us know in the comments!

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