Science, Nature and Tech

What is the Orionid Meteor Shower?

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Sam has worked as a forensic scientist as well as for the British government, and has degrees in both archaeology and osteoarchaeology. She has 2 children, is passionate about science, reading, history and music, and loves dyeing her hair bright colours!

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This October Earth will be passing through the tail of Halley’s comet, which will mean a shower of meteors flashing across the night sky. Our science editor Sam Gouldson explains.

What is Halley’s Comet?

A comet is a lump of rocky particles, ice and dust all bound together like a dirty snowball. When the comet nears a star, its surface transforms from a solid to a gas. The star’s light shines through these gases and makes them visible to observers as a fuzzy cloud around the comet’s centre, and a tail streaming out behind.

Observations of Halley’s comet have been recorded since 240 BCE, but it was Edmond Halley (pronounced HAL-ee or HAY-lee) who first realised that the comet was returning to Earth periodically and must, therefore, be orbiting the same star that we do.

Until Halley’s calculations in 1705 it was believed that comets merely passed through our solar system; using his friend Isaac Newton’s new laws of gravity and motion he worked out that the comet appeared every 75-76 years. It still does – it was last visible from Earth in 1986 and will next be seen in 2061.

What does the Meteor Shower have to do with the Comet?

Although we won’t see Halley’s comet again for 45 years, its presence is still felt. Every October Earth passes through debris left behind when the comet’s surface melts; as the dust and particles come into contact with our atmosphere at speeds of up to 145,000 kilometres per hour they burn up. This is known as a meteor shower or shooting stars.

Why are They Called the Orionids?

Meteor showers are usually named after the constellation of stars that they seem to come from, although of course, they originate much closer to our planet. For example, the Leonids are seen close to the constellation Leo, while the Geminids are seen near the constellation of Gemini. The Orionids (pronounced o-RYE-on-ids), as you may have guessed, are seen close to the constellation of Orion.

The constellation Orion, named after the hunter from Greek mythology. The three stars in the centre are known as Orion's belt. (Image: NASA).

The constellation Orion, named after the hunter from Greek mythology. The three stars in the centre are known as Orion’s belt. (Image: NASA).

How Can We See Them?

This year the Orionids are visible from the 4th October to the 14th November, but they’re at their brightest and most frequent on the 21st and 22nd October between midnight and dawn. You’ll need to be outside so wrap up warmly, and find a spot that doesn’t have much light pollution – a hilltop or the middle of a park are usually good spots. Look towards the southeastern part of the sky where Orion is, and you could see up to 20 meteors per hour.


Still not sure what to look for? Check out these videos:

This one has time stamps that you can click.


Sam has also written about the differences between asteroids, comets and meteors

Featured image: Orionid meteor shower by John Flannery


Language & Literature

Shooting stars, Weather, and Rocks falling from the Sky!


Millie is a British writer and translator living and working in Greece. She writes about etymology on Jump! Mag and on Glossologics, and shares her children’s stories on Kidscapers.

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What do shooting stars, weather and rocks falling from the sky have in common? Are you wondering whether we have gone mad asking such a question? Do rocks ever fall from the sky? Of course they do! You might know them better as “meteorites”, and they are meteors, or rocks from outer space, that fall down to the earth. And what does that have to do with weather? It’s not like they come down like rain! And before you say to yourself “meteor shower”, remember that a meteor is actually a shooting star, a space-rock that burns up in the Earth’s atmosphere. Related, yes, but weather, no.

The weather connection is through another word, generally used to mean “study of the weather”. That word is “meteorology”. As you can see, all three have something in common – the word “meteor”.

So what is this word, and how did it come to mean these different things?

Meteor came into English through French in the late 15th century. In French it was meteore. Very similar, you might think. Does this mean that it is a French word. Not at all. The next question we must ask ourselves is where did French get it from? The answer is from Medieval Latin meteorum, which meant “things in the heavens”. But this is not the end of the tale. Latin took the word from ancient Greek, and in Greek we can analyse the word to see what it really means.

The Greek word μετέωρα (meteora) can be broken into two parts: meta, which means “over, beyond” and aora, which comes from the verb αείρω/ αίρω (aeiro, airo), which meant “to raise, lift up”. Even today, in Modern Greek, αιωρείται (aioreitai) means “it hovers”. All this means that the original meaning of the word was “thing that is raised in the air”. And even in ancient times this developed to mean “things in the sky” and gradually came to have the meaning it does today.

Another interesting point is that the word “air” is in fact from the same root as αείρω (aeiro), which makes it a distant cousin, or cognate, of “meteor”.


Did you know:

One of the largest and most famous meteor craters is to be found in northern Arizona, desert of the U.S. It is 1,200m wide, 170m deep and calculated to be created 50,000 years ago! It is more commonly known as the Barringer Crater.

Screenshot 2013-10-28 at 09.49.14




Title Photography: Mike Lewinski 2013

Amanda Scheliga 2007