October is the month for two meteor showers—Draconid and Orionid. They get their names from the constellations closest to the places in the night sky where they seem to originate. The truth is that they have no connection to those constellations. Instead, these October meteor showers come from comets.
Meteor showers result from Earth passing through dust trails left by comets. The Draconids peaked this year on the night between October 8 and 9. They originate from debris left by comet 21P/Giaconini-Zinner that makes a revolution around the Sun every 6.6 years. Every October, when Earth passes through the dirty dust trail, the bits of debris burn up from friction as they enter the atmosphere at extremely high speed, and we see them as “shooting stars.”
The Orionid meteors are the result of Halley’s Comet. That comet makes a complete orbit around the Sun every 76 years, but Earth passes through the left-over debris twice a year in May and October. This year’s Orionid shower will peak on the night between October 20 and 21. However, a few of them may be visible even tonight as the October meteor showers almost overlap.
Unlike asteroids, which can be very large and cause severe damage, comet dust is beautiful but harmless. The Chixculub asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs was 6.2 miles (10 km) in diameter. The impact was like a 100 million megaton bomb blast, and it wiped out three-fourths of all plant and animal life on Earth.
What if a whole comet struck planet Earth? The result would be catastrophic. We can find comfort in the fact that our solar system was designed with comet sweepers to prevent that from happening. The comet sweepers are named Neptune, Uranus, Saturn, and the main one–Jupiter. Those giant outer planets all travel in the same plane, or ecliptic, as our planet. Comets come from outside the solar system, and because those outer planets are much larger, they have much more gravity. Since they are in line with Earth’s plane, they pull in the comets before they can reach our home planet.
The picture from NASA shows some fragments of the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 being pulled into Jupiter after the planet’s gravity ripped it into 21 pieces in July 1994. Those pieces were up to 1.2 miles in diameter and traveling at 134,000 miles per hour. Imagine what would have happened if that comet, or even one of those pieces, had hit the Earth! That is something to think about while watching the beauty of the October meteor showers. There is a reason why God designed the solar system the way He did. It was not an accident–and neither are we.
— Roland Earnst © 2021
Click HERE for information about viewing the Orionid Meteor Shower.