Orion Carves a Trail of Stars through the Night: this week on the Storyeller's Night Sky

Oct 19, 2020

The constellation Orion in western astronomical tradition is almost coincident with the Ojibwe constellation Biboonikeonini, Winter Maker, who rises up in this season bearing snowflakes and falling stars in his wake.

The meteor shower of the giant Orion peaks overnight this week, especially in the early morning hours of October 21st, so let’s take a look at what’s tucked in here.

Orion is one of the oldest-known named constellations, and is mentioned in the oldest surviving works of Greek literature, appearing in Homer’s “Iliad” in the 9th or 8th century BC, where he is described as a constellation with his dog, Sirius. In most stories surviving from the Greek tradition, he’s a hunter and a cad, chasing women and bragging about his ability to overcome every animal on Earth, so Gaia unleashes the scorpion, which kills Orion, and which results in the two of them being placed among the stars, on opposite sides of the sky.

To find Orion in this season, look just south of east after 10 pm. As the night wears on, he climbs fully over the horizon and marches steadily on toward the west, one dog at this heels, while another yelps near his upraised right hand, in which he carries a club. It’s in this region that the radiant of his meteor shower appears. The radiant is the central point from which the stars seem to fly through the sky.

You don’t have to be looking at Orion to see the meteors, but if you lie on the Earth with your feet pointing southeast and look up to take in as much as the sky as possible, you may be graced with a beautiful sight. The Orionids are known for their brightness and for their speed, leaving glowing trains across the night and sometimes bursting into fireballs.

As famous as the constellation for which it’s named, the parent comet of this week’s meteor shower is 1P/Halley, which was recorded as early as the 2nd century BC, but only realized as a periodic, or regularly returning comet, by Edmond Halley in the 18th century.

Unlike Mark Twain, Halley didn’t live long enough to see the return of the comet that bears his name.