Orionid Meteor Shower Set to Peak After Mars Reaches Maximum Brightness in Sky Tonight

The remaining days of October will be a treat for skywatchers, with Mars reaching its maximum brightness in the night sky tonight and the Orionid meteor shower set to peak next week.

The Orionids are a medium strength meteor shower that is active between October 2 and November 7, with the peak coming on the night of the 20-21, according to the American Meteor Society (AMS.)

This year, the moon will be about 23 percent full on the peak night, which means there will be relatively dark skies and, therefore, good viewing conditions—depending on the weather in your location of course.

In a normal year, the Orionids produce a maximum of 10-20 meteors per hour at the peak, although some exceptional years have seen rates as high as 50-75 per hour.

The AMS has predicted that up to 20 Orionids per hour will be visible on the peak night in 2020 when viewed from rural locations away from city lights.

Meteor showers are celestial events in which numerous meteors—or "shooting stars"—appear in the night sky. To an observer, the meteors appear to come from a single point known as the radiant. In the case of the Perseids, the radiant is located in the northern part of the constellation Orion.

Meteor showers tend to be the result of the Earth passing through streams of cosmic debris left behind by comets in their long orbits around the sun. The origin of the debris that produces the Orionids is the famous Halley's Comet, which is visible from Earth every 75-76 years.

This debris enters the Earth's atmosphere and burns up at speeds of around 150,000 miles per hour, producing the steaks of light in the sky that we call meteors.

meteor shower
Stock image: A meteor shower with the Milky Way visible in the background. The Orionid meteor shower peaks on the night of October 20-21. iStock

The peak of the Orionids comes a week after the planet Mars reaching its maximum brightness in the night sky.

Tonight, Mars will be at opposition—meaning it will be opposite the sun, with the earth located directly between the Red Planet and our star.

The positioning of these three bodies means that Mars will rise as the sun sets, and set as the sun rises, Sky & Telescope reported. At this time, the planet is at its peak brightness in the sky and near its maximum observable size.

Mars oppositions occur roughly every 26 months, as Earth catches up to the Red Planet in their respective orbits around the sun.

This year's Mars opposition is notable because it occurs close to when the Red Planet reaches its perihelion—or closest point to the sun. Mars reached perihelion in its orbit on August 3.