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Orionid meteor shower promises a weekend treat

Looking for something stellar to do this weekend? Wander outside of the city early Sunday morning and observe the Orionid meteor shower.

This image shows a closeup look at an Orionid meteoroid streaking across the sky in 2009.
Steve Ryan

Around this time of year, the Earth passes through a trail of space debris left over from Halley's Comet's 76-year orbit around the sun, giving us a prime angle to a spectacular shooting-star show.

The Orionid meteor shower's peak -- expected to last from 10:30 p.m. on Saturday to 5 a.m. on Sunday across most of the U.S. -- could produce up to 25 meteors per hour, says Bill Cooke, head of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office. Check in with star-gazing Web site Spacedex to see when Orionid specifically occurs near you.

Inexperienced observers may not know what to expect during a meteor shower. It's most important to understand that meteors don't appear as a stereotypical slow-moving comet in the sky, but rather as a series of fast-moving streaks. After all, the Orionid meteoroids cascade upon our atmosphere at roughly 148,000 mph.

To see this weekend's meteor shower, make sure you tune your eyes toward the Orion constellation. Several smartphone apps can help you identify the Orion formation, such as Google Sky Map for Android or Star Walk for iOS (many alternatives exist; just search "astronomy" in your app store). Thankfully, the night sky should provide the perfect template for the shower as the moon should set on Saturday evening when the meteors begin to fall.

"This year, Venus and Jupiter have moved into position with Sirius, the Dog Star, to form a bright triangle in the eastern pre-dawn sky," says Tony Phillips, author of "Space Weather." "On the morning of October 21, blazing pieces of Halley's Comet will cut straight through the heart of this celestial triad."

In related news, some Northern California residents witnessed a dazzling meteor a little before 8 p.m. on October 17. The errant meteor turned into a fireball and caused a sonic boom near the San Francisco Bay Area, explained further in the video below by our friends at CBS News.