With the arrival of spring comes the season to head far out from cities in the middle night to watching meteor showers. The key one in October is the Orionids, which will have around 20 bright shooting stars per hour at its peak on the night of the 21st and morning and the 22nd.
Most meteor showers are from the tails of comets which passed by and left behind clouds of dust and debris. In the case of the Orionids, it was Halley's Comet. When the Earth runs into these clouds of dust, or in the case of fireballs, grains of sand, at 100,000 km/h they glow brightly from the friction of entering our atmosphere.
Photograph of Hailey's Comet Courtesy of W. Liller @ NASA
Meteor showers have been observed for millennia and can have many different names. All modern names for meteor showers come from their radiant point, that is where shooting stars appear to be coming from. In the case of the Orionids, it is the constellation Orion.
Photo courtesy of Marc Layer - Geof @ Wikimedia
Watching the Orionids
Generally speaking, shooting stars are fairly faint, and to observe them you need to get away from urban and suburban light pollution. The Orionids are known to produce bright shooting stars, so sometimes you can be lucky even if you haven't completely escaped all light, you can still have a good chance of observing then.
The origin of wishing on shooting stars can be traced back to Ptolemy, a mathematician living in 2nd century Hellenistic Egypt (who was probably a Roman citizen) who is most famous for being wrong about the model of the solar system, putting Earth at the centre. He also wrote that the gods would look down on Earth, and to do this they would have to push aside the perfect spheres that made up the heavens, and as a result, occasionally a star would fall through one of these gaps. Whenever you see a shooting star you know the gods are paying attention, so it is the best time ask them for a wish.
Observing a meteor shower
To observe meteor showers, you need to get away from all light pollution. You can just head out to bushland areas, remote beaches are great when the weather is warm, and other people hike up mountains at night to find the perfect view of the sky. Once in those locations, you want to remove all sources of light. This includes phones, smartwatches, camera screens and even fires. It takes about 20 minutes for your eyes to fully adjust to the dark, and only seconds to lose your night vision.
Next find a comfortable spot to sit or, better yet, lie and look at the sky. You don't normally have to worry about where the radiant point is because shooting stars could appear anywhere in the sky. Then just keep looking at the sky.
Times and location in the sky
The general rule for shooting stars is that they are best observed between the hours of midnight (adjust for daylight savings) and dawn, with the hours closest to dawn being the best because the radiant point will be highest above the horizon at that time. However this year on the peak on October 21 and 22, you want to start your viewing early due to the fact that a rising quarter moon could interfere with your viewing. But there will be a window to observe shooting stars before the moon rises.
Photograph courtesy of Mike Lewinksi @ Flickr
The meteor shower will last for over a month, so you don't have to just go on the peak days. Remember to check details about the moon before you go on other nights.
In Sydney you should be able to start seeing shooting stars in the east northeast sky from 1 am and you have an hour before moonrise at 2:06 am. Though you should be able to see the brighter shooting stars through to the predawn light, with sunrise at 6:06 am.
Melbourne is similar to Sydney with the meteor shower starting at 1 am in the east northeast, and moonrise at is 2:42 am. Sunrise is at 6:26 am
As Queenslanders sensibly (or irrationally, depending on which side of the debate you are on) don't have daylight savings time, Brisbanites can start viewing the meteor shower from 11 pm and the moon will rise at 12:43 am. Sunrise is at 5:06 am.
In Adelaide the meteor shower becomes visible at 12:30 am and moonrise is at 2:30 am, followed by sunrise 6:25 am.
For Perth, viewing starts at midnight with the moonrise 1 and half hours later and the sun rising at 5:30 am
Photographing shooting stars
An interesting but difficult night sky photography challenge is photographing a shooting star. They are often not very bright and move very fast across the sky. To capture one through the lens requires a decent camera, such as a DLSR or mirrorless interchangeable lens camera, a fast lens, a tripod and a great deal of luck.
When it comes to lenses, you want the fastest lens you can get. Most people with a good camera bought their camera and zoom lens as a kit. These zoom lenses are great, but many are not that fast, with a f value of f/3.5 or even f/4. If that is what you have, then try that, but to really photograph a shooting star you need a faster lens, which is usually your prime (fixed focal length) lenses. These can have a smaller f value of say f/2.5 or f/2, which makes them faster.
Then when you set up the camera, you want it on a tripod and point it at the sky. Using the lowest f stop on your lends you probably want an exposure of around 10 to 25 seconds. The longer the exposure, the more likely you are to capture a shooting star, but at the same time you will get more of the background stars, which can make it hard to see the shooting star.
Because shooting stars are fast, you can't wait to see one and then take the photograph, instead, you need to keep taking photographs of the sky, hoping that you will capture one. You can do this by configuring your camera to keep taking photographs automatically. Then later you need to go back through all the photos to see if you were lucky.