Lots of streaks of light in the night sky from Orionid meteors

Orionid meteor shower and the Milky Way © Brian Spencer/ Shutterstock

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Orionid meteor shower 2021: when and how to watch

Active throughout the month, the Orionid meteor shower will peak in the early hours of 22 October. The Draconids also make a brief appearance earlier in the month.

Planetary science researcher and meteorite expert Dr Ashley King shares his tips on how to catch the best view. Plus, find out what causes meteor showers and others to look out for.

Meteors are often called shooting stars, though the bright streaks you see in the sky don't have anything to do with stars.

In fact, what you're wishing on are tiny particles of dust - leftovers from the birth of our solar system - vaporising in Earth's atmosphere.

Tips for watching the Orionids

Some of the more spectacular of these meteors can sometimes be visible from central London however you're bound to get the best experience away from the light pollution of the city.

Gif of a meteor captured on camera at the Natural History Museum

A bright meteor recorded on a meteor-monitoring CCTV camera at the Museum

'The darker the skies, the better your odds are of seeing the really faint ones as well,' says Ashley. 'You could go to the coast or stand on a hill in the middle of the countryside somewhere.'

You also need to be patient.

'You might not be able to see anything for the first 10 minutes while your eyes adjust,' he adds. 

'Once you get used to the low light levels you'll begin to notice more and more. So don't give up too quickly.'

If you can't escape the lights of the city, or the weather is against you on the night, watch the meteor shower live online with the UK Meteor Network

What causes a meteor shower?

Meteor showers occur when Earth passes through a stream of tiny pieces of debris (meteoroids) left behind by a comet.

Most comets are composed of dust and ice, which Ashley likens to 'a big, dirty snowball.'

'As comets orbit the Sun, the ice sublimes [changes from a solid to a gas] and the trapped dust is swept out into a tail behind them.'

Nearly all meteors are tiny dust particles, about the size of a grain of sand travelling at tens of kilometres per second through space.

'As they come out of the vacuum of space and into Earth's atmosphere, that little dust grain interacts with all the particles and ions in the atmosphere. It gets heated up by the friction and forms the impressive flash that we see,' he says.

'The Earth isn't close to the comet - it's just passing through some of the dust it left behind.'

At other times of year, you may still see meteors in the sky, but only about one every 10 minutes. These sporadic meteors, as they are known, will come from random directions.

Perseid meteor shower in 2016

A lone meteor © Jacek Halick (CC BY-SA 4.0) via Wikimedia commons

Orionid meteor shower

The Orionid meteor shower takes place annually from about 1 October to 6 November as Earth passes through the trail of Halley's Comet, one of the most famous comets of all time. In 2021, the shower is due to peak in the early hours of 22 October.

Orionids are some of the fastest and brightest meteors, entering the atmosphere at just under 70 kilometres per second.

Orionids get their name because they seem to radiate from the constellation Orion, but they can appear anywhere in the sky.

Stargazers can usually expect to see around 10-20 meteors per hour, but this year a full Moon will obscure all but the brightest meteors.

Halley's Comet

Halley's Comet is a short-period comet, meaning it takes less than 200 years to go around the Sun. Its orbital period is 75-76 years and it last passed close to Earth in 1986. It will be back again in 2061.

In 1986 space agencies sent missions (Vega, Giotto, Sakigake and Suisei) to Halley (the 'Halley Armada'), so it's one of the best-studied comets.

Halley's Comet has been observed for centuries - in 1066 it was considered an omen of doom. It even appears on the Bayeux Tapestry, which depicts events leading up to the Norman conquest of England in the eleventh century. 

Silhouetted people pointing at meteors

Meteor shower © Allexxandar/ Shutterstock

Top meteor showers to look out for in 2021

  • The Quadrantids, due to peak on 3-4 January with around 110 meteors per hour, possibly from the trail of the asteroid 2003 EH1 or perhaps from a comet
  • The Lyrids, due to peak on 21-22 April with nearly 20 meteors per hour from the trail of the comet Thatcher
  • The Eta Aquariids, due to peak before dawn on 6 May with 10-40 meteors per hour from the trail of the comet 1P/Halley
  • The Delta Aquariids, due to peak on 29-30 July with about 20 meteors per hour, possibly from the trail of comet 96P/Machholz
  • The Perseids, due to peak on 12-13 August with around 100-150 meteors per hour from the trail of the comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle
  • The Draconids, due to peak on 8-9 October with usually less than 10 meteors per hour from the trail of comet 21P/Giacobini-Zinner. Unusually, this shower is best seen in the evening.
  • The Orionids, due to peak on 21-22 October with about 10-20 meteors per hour from the trail of the comet 1P/Halley
  • The Northern Taurids, due to peak on 12-13 November with around 5 meteors per hour from the trails of Asteroid 2004 TG10 and Comet 2P/Encke
  • The Leonids, due to peak on 17-18 November with 15 meteors per hour from the trail of the comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle
  • The Geminids, due to peak on 14-15 December with more than 100 meteors per hour from the trail of the asteroid 3200 Phaethon (although it is officially classified as an asteroid, it produces a tail like a comet)
  • The Ursids, due to peak on 22-23 December with under 10 meteors per hour from the trail of the comet 8P/Tuttle

Leonid meteor shower

The Leonid meteor shower takes place annually between 5-29 November as Earth crosses the trail of comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle.

Entering the atmosphere at 70 kilometres per second, the Leonids are some of the fastest-moving and brightest meteors. The shower promises around 10-20 meteors per hour at its peak on the night of 17 November, but viewing conditions won't be ideal this year due to a nearly full Moon.

Leonids get their name because they seem to radiate from the constellation Leo.

Comet Tempel-Tuttle

Comet Tempel-Tuttle is a short-period comet, taking 33 years to go around the Sun. Its last visit was in 1998 with a return expected in 2031. The comet is quite small, only two miles across.

The comet is named for the two astronomers, Ernst Tempel and Horace Tuttle, who each independently discovered it in 1865 and 1866 respectively.

Night sky view of the Geminid meteor shower

Geminid meteor shower © Genevieve de Messieres/ Shutterstock

Geminid meteor shower

One of the most spectacular meteor showers of the year, the Geminids take place annually from about 3-16 December as the Earth in its orbit passes through the trail of dust left by the 'rock comet' 3200 Phaethon.

At the shower's peak on the night of 14 December, stargazers willing to brave the cold could be rewarded with a display of more than 100 multicoloured meteors per hour.

It is often one of the best showers of the year for viewers in the northern hemisphere, as it is one of the most active, but this year its peak coincides with a nearly full Moon. You could still be in for a treat, however, if you stay out to watch after the Moon sets.

Geminids get their name because meteors appear to radiate from the constellation Gemini.

3200 Phaethon

Discovered by satellite in 1983, Phaethon is the only asteroid that is associated with a meteor shower. It has an orbital period of 524 days and travels even closer to the Sun than Mercury does.

According to Ashley, there is quite a lot of debate about what Phaethon really is.

'Like other comets, Phaethon has an elliptical orbit but is unusual as it doesn't go to the outer solar system. It has been officially classified as a B-type asteroid, but it has also been suggested that it could be a "rock comet" or a "dead comet".'

Phaethon is considered a potentially hazardous asteroid, meaning it could impact the Earth at some point hundreds of years in the future. For this reason it is very well studied and there are plans to send space missions there in the future, with the DESTINY+ mission currently due to launch in 2024.

Phaethon may be similar to the asteroid Ryugu, from which the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) Hayabusa2 mission recently returned samples, and Bennu, recently visited by NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission.

Meteor shower in front of the milky way

Lyrid meteor shower © lovemushroom/ Shutterstock

Lyrid meteor shower

The Lyrid meteor shower takes place annually between 13-29 April as the Earth in orbit passes through the dust trail left behind (hundreds of years ago) by comet C/186 G1 (Thatcher).

This year, at the peak of the display during the early hours of 22 April, around 20 meteors per hour are expected to be visible.

The most spectacular are 'Lyrid fireballs', which occur when meteoroids the size of a large marble pass through the atmosphere. Their slightly larger size produces a meteor train which we see as a flash and line across the night sky.

Unfortunately, this year the Moon will be about two-thirds full at the shower's peak and the extra light will make it harder to see fainter meteors.

The Lyrid meteor shower gets its name because it appears to radiate from the area of the sky near the constellation Lyra, the Harp - but the meteors can appear anywhere in the sky.

Comet Thatcher

Comet Thatcher, responsible for the Lyrid meteor shower, takes 415 years to complete a full orbit of the Sun.

We have no photographs because the last time it visited the inner solar system was in 1861 - well before the widespread use of photography. 

Perseid meteor shower peak in 2015

The Perseid meteor shower in 2015 © John Fowler via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Perseid meteor shower

One of the best celestial events of the year to watch, the Perseid meteor shower takes place from 16 July to 23 August as Earth passes through the trail left behind by the very large comet Swift-Tuttle.

Most meteors are pieces of dust around the size of a grain of sand. Larger pieces can create spectacular fireballs and make bright trails across the sky.

The Perseid shower this year is expected to feature around 100-150 meteors per hour at its peak on 12-13 August, including bright streaks and fireballs. In the UK, you could see some activity as soon as the Sun sets, although your chances will increase once the crescent Moon sets in the early evening.

Perseids get their name because they appear to radiate from the constellation Perseus, but they can appear anywhere in the sky. The best views will be from a dark location, just before midnight on 12 August until dawn the next day.

Comet Swift-Tuttle

Swift-Tuttle, responsible for the Perseid meteor shower, takes 133 years to complete a full orbit of the Sun.

At 26 kilometres wide it is the largest solar system object to regularly pass so close to Earth.

Swift-Tuttle's elongated orbit means that debris enters the Earth's atmosphere at great speed.