Comet and the Orionids
© 2007 by Bob Moler
guess I'm showing my age, but it's been nearly 22 years since I've seen
the most famous comet of then all: Halley's Comet. It wasn't
particularly spectacular. Hale-Bopp's appearance of 10 years
was everything Halley was not.
Hale-Bopp won't be back for 2,000 years, but Halley will be back much
sooner, only 54 years from now. I don't think I'll make it
then. There's not too many people who've been fortunate to
seen Halley's Comet twice.
So what's with the title? This month the earth will pass
the debris trail left by Halley's many returns to the sun. Halley's
returns to the sun have been traced back to perhaps 2467 BC thanks to
Chinese records. It's been recorded on 29 appearances since
BC. For those of us who saw the 1986 appearance of the comet,
Halley's wasn't the great comet noted in the pass. Of course
earth wasn't in the greatest position to view the comet that year.
All this month, peaking around the 21st, the earth will sweep into the
tenuous trail of debris from the comet. As seen from the
track on this page the orbit of Halley's Comet passes near the earth's
orbit on two points. On the way in it crosses the earth's orbit where
the earth is around October 21st. On the way out it crosses
closer to the earth near May 9th. The first, not so close
causes the Orionid meteor shower, which gives us at best about 20-25
meteors an hour. The second is the Eta Aquarid meteor shower;
which isn't easily seen from the northern hemisphere, but rivals the
Perseids in numbers of up to 50 meteors per hour for those in the
the morning of the Orionid peak, October 21st, the gibbous moon will
set about 2:12 a.m., leaving the sky dark until twilight starts at 6:26
a.m. The radiant point for these meteors is from the upraised
club of Orion, as can be seen on the chart here.
The bits of Halley's Comet will streak through the sky at 66 kilometers
per second or 41 miles per second to burn up high overhead.
yes you can see bits of Halley's comet this month.
Halley's Comet's fame began when it was rediscovered on December 25th,
1758. It proved British astronomer Sir Edmund Halley's
calculations were correct. He observed the comet in 1682 and
noticed that its appearance was close to the of the comets of 1531 and
1607 that returned at intervals of 75 to 76 years. He
that that comet would return in 1757, The comet was delayed,
arrived to be found the next year. Comets and
their debris trains get batted around by gravitational forces of
Jupiter and the rest of the planets. In fact Jupiter is
for most of the periodic comets there are. Interestingly, the
seem to have a periodicity in strength of about 12 years. This was
discovered by Audrius Dubietis of Vilnius University,
Could it be related to Jupiter and it's 12 year orbit of the
Halley's Comet does come reasonably close to Jupiter's orbit on its
inbound leg. The last bit is my own thought. 2008
to 2010 the
Orionids are expected to be near peak strength in this 12 year cycle.
chart above, Halley's current orbit doesn't come particularly close to
the earth. It passes at 0.15 AU from the earth, That's about
million miles. However in 1911 Charles P. Olivier noted that
Orionids had similar orbits to those of the Eta Aquarids. The
link of the Eta Aquarids to Halley's comet had already been
established. But still 0.15 AU is a wide miss of the
Astronomers B.A. McIntosh and Hajduk worked from Halley's orbital data
all the way back to 1404 AD from Donald K. Yeomans and CAT Kiang and
were able to prove the connection with Halley's Comet.
The Orionids can be surprising in another way. It has been noted on
other appearances that sometimes it has more than one peak.
Several times a peak on the 18th was as strong as the one on the
The Orionids aren't the only meteor shower in October.
the very intense, on occasions, Draconids. These are related
Comet Giacobini-Zinner, and occur on October 8th or 9th.
last big return was in 1998, The comet has an orbit of the
about 6 ½ years. We don't get a great shower every
the comet returns.
Next month are the famous Leonids around the 17th of
The next and last outburst of more than normal numbers of meteors will
be in 2009. This year should be a normal Leonid year. This
is related to Comet Tempel-Tuttle, in a 33 year orbit of the
If I'm counting right it'll be back in 2031.
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