Saturday night’s all right … for skywatching: Tonight’s mostly clear skies over Western Washington should provide a good opportunity to see the peak of the Orionid meteor shower, and a great opportunity to check out the nearly full moon on International Observe the Moon Night.
The moon is sure to one-up the meteors: With the full phase just a few days away, it’ll be in the sky nearly all night, washing out most of the Orionids’ fainter flashes. Nevertheless, the weekend timing and the sky cover forecast could make it worth your while to get out of town and see the show.
Clear, dark skies will help you maximize your meteor-viewing experience. The skies tend to be clearer and darker when you get away from city lights as well as the foggy conditions that are expected to develop in the central Puget Sound area.
The Orionids build up to a peak every year around Oct. 20-21 when Earth swings through a trail of cosmic grit left behind by Halley’s Comet. The meteor count can rise to 50 meteor sightings per hour, but this year’s show isn’t expected to be that prolific. The forecast calls for 15 to 20 sightings under optimal viewing conditions.
Although the Orionids seem to originate from a point in the constellation Orion, they can flash in any location in the sky, so keep your field of view as wide as possible. To minimize the moon’s glare, try to find a viewing spot where buildings, trees or mountains block out the moon in western skies during the optimal post-midnight hours.
We have a top-five list of meteor-viewing locations in Western Washington, and because of this weekend’s temperature inversion, the chances of clearer skies are better at higher elevations. For more general meteor-watching tips, check out our guide to August’s Perseid meteor shower.
Tonight also brings the annual outreach opportunity for watching the moon: International Observe the Moon Night. NASA schedules the occasion for when the moon is not quite full, so that a close look reveals the shadows and the terminator line between light and dark on the lunar surface.
Hundreds of events are on the schedule, including a smattering in Western Washington. For example, the Whatcom Association of Celestial Observers is planning a party at Bellingham’s Boulevard Park, starting at 6:30 p.m. Bring your binoculars or your telescope — plus something warm to wear when the sun goes down.
If you totally miss out on the Geminids, there’s always the next meteor shower to look forward to: The Leonids hit their peak on Nov. 17-18, followed by the Geminids on Dec. 13-14, and the moon won’t be so much in the way for either of those showers.