What is the modern and ancient meaning behind the 2012 Orionid meteor shower?

By D. Chandler

Scientist have been looking at the sky in an effort glean some meaning from the behavior of the stars and planets since time memorable. This week life on earth will be the audience for the brilliant and spectacular Orionid Meteor Shower that predictably will occur around midnight October 20-21.

Comet Halley – or Halley’s Comet – will be putting on a show and the 2012 Orionid meteor shower will peak. What does this mean? Meteors will streak the sky in the pre-dawn hours on Saturday, October 20 and Sunday, October 21. Sunday is said to be the better viewing option but both I’d much rather sleep in. I’m shooting – no pun intended – for Saturday. And thanks to the waxing crescent moon setting well before the show, the sky will be plenty dark. But to merely settle upon this event as just an observer seemed to minimize its importance. Therefore, a more challenging approach to this weekend it not only to enjoy the fireworks, but to also as the question as to what the modern and ancient meaning behind the 2012 Orionid meteor shower.

A meteor shower lit up skies Wednesday night above the Bay Area and throughout California.

They will appear with increasing frequency through Sunday, according to the National Weather Service.

Reports of bright fireballs streaking across the skies were reported from as far north as Mendocino County. A cloud-free sky and the warm temperatures that are pushing out the clouds will make the showers more and more visible as the weekend approaches.

Residents reported seeing the bright lights and hearing a loud boom throughout Northern California, with sightings as far as Santa Cruz County. Some reported feeling a thud, like an earthquake. Loud booms are often associated with meteor showers.

Some astronomers doubt that it was an Orionid because it reportedly traveled slowly across the sky and was followed by an exploding “boom” which is more typical of a stony or iron meteorite. NASA meteorite experts are currently investigating this fall which may have landed in the hills near Martinez, CA.

Just like all other meteor showers, the Orionids gets its name from the constellation from which its shooting stars appear to radiate—what astronomers call the shower’s radiant.

In this case observers can trace back the streaks of light to the area in the sky occupied by the mythical hunter Orion—all radiating out from a spot just above its bright orange star Betelgeuse.

The Orionid shower is caused when Earth slams into a debris field left behind by Halley’s comet, which won’t return to our neck of the woods for another five decades. (Find out why Halley’s comet has been hailed as an omen of doom.)

“Seeing Orionids is a little like getting a postcard from the comet, which only makes a local appearance every 76 years,” Cook said.

“While the Orionids are mostly caused by sand-grain-size pebbles shed by the famous comet in past centuries, it’s amazing to think that Halley’s itself will not be seen by eye until July of 2061, just less than 49 years from now.”

So much for the fun and not so fun technical aspect of this week’s rumbling in the universe.

It’s nice that modern scientists are wonderfully able to predict the day and time our universe decides to exhibit god’s magnificent unexplainable power. But I can’t help but to want understand what are the movement and ruckus in the heavens is all about. There are two question that and event like this gives rise to. Why does it occur and what does it mean?

Well, a meteor shower happens when a comet has gone around the sun and it leaves dust according to Dr. Melissa Morris of ASU.

The Orionid meteor shower occurs annually. This weekend marks the peak of a continuous stream of shooting stars seen just before the dawn. The astrological phenomenon occurs every year in mid-to late October, when Earth orbits through the dusty debris of Halley’s Comet.

The streaks surround the constellation Orion, hence the shower’s name Orionid and in honor of the celestial collection of stars.

Now by saying the event happens each year doesn’t really specifically satisfy the why. In fact, I am of the opinion that you can never get at the why of this annual event unless you have at least a cursory understanding of what the ancients believed.

That would take us to the Orion constellations, which is the group of stars astrologically involved in this week’s spectacle.

The Orionid meteor shower will undoubtedly have most fans full attention this weekend, however, it might be important to know that a far-greater celestial firework display is coming in 2014.

Only recently have scientist pointed to this new coming phenomenon. In fact, this predicted event was discovered in 2004 when a periodic comet was discovered on Feb. 3, of that year.

Meteor experts Esko Lyytinen of Finland and Peter Jenniskens at NASA Ames Research Center were the first to announce that the Earth was on a collision course with a number of dusty debris trails shed by comet LINEAR which would cause an outburst of meteor activity. Their findings have since been independently confirmed by two meteor experts.

Jeremie Vaubaillon, of The Institut de Mecanique Celeste et de Calcul des Ephemerides in France, notes that: “So far,given the observations, we estimate a ZHR (zenithal hourly rate) of 100/hr to 400/hr, which is an excellent outburst! But this shower can become an exceptional one. Indeed, given the current orbit of the comet, all the trails ejected between 1803 and 1924 do fall in the Earth’s path in May 2014! As a consequence, this shower might as well be a storm.”

You can see Vaubaillon’s plot of Earth’s path through the meteor shower stream here. The plot shows the Earth passing through a dense trail of debris on May 24, 2014.
Another reputable meteor scientist, Mikhail Maslov of Russia, has made a “very cautious” estimate for a ZHR of 100/hr, but with the disclaimer: “It is difficult to estimate expected intensity of the outburst due to the lack of past observed cases of activity from the given comet meteor shower, as well as due to very small size of the comet itself and unknown level of its past activity … and it is very possible that real activity will turn to be much higher. Storm levels are also far from being excluded.”

Now that we know something extraordinary is headed our way. Let’s take a look at what the ancients have to say about the Orion constellation.

Most ancient astronomers viewed Orion as the “Hunter.” Orion is one of the most beautiful of all constellations, and one of the easiest to find. It looks like a large rectangle high in winter’s south-southeastern sky.

Two of the brightest stars in the evening sky lie at opposite corners of the rectangle: bright red Betelgeuse at the northeastern corner and even brighter Rigel at the southwest.

Near the center of the rectangle, look for a short diagonal line of three stars — Orion’s belt. And extending south from the belt, you’ll see another, fainter line of stars that forms Orion’s sword.

One of the objects in Orion’s sword isn’t a star at all. It’s a nebula — a cloud of gas and dust that’s like a giant fluorescent bulb. Hot young stars inside the nebula pump energy into its gas, causing the gas to glow.

More specifically, Orion was a giant huntsman in Greek mythology whom Zeus placed the stars as the constellation of Orion.

Stories of the death of Orion are numerous and conflicting. Astronomical mythographers such as Aratus, Eratosthenes and Hyginus were agreed that a scorpion was involved. In one version, told by Eratosthenes and Hyginus, Orion boasted that he was the greatest of hunters. He declared to Artemis, the goddess of hunting, and Leto, her mother, that he could kill any beast on Earth. The Earth shuddered indignantly and from a crack in the ground emerged a scorpion which stung the presumptuous giant to death.

Aratus, though, says that Orion attempted to ravish the virgin Artemis, and it was she who caused the Earth to open, bringing forth the scorpion. Ovid has still another account; he says that Orion was killed trying to save Leto from the scorpion. Even the location varies. Eratosthenes and Hyginus say that Orion’s death happened in Crete, but Aratus places it in Chios.

In both versions, the outcome was that Orion and the scorpion (the constellation Scorpius) were placed on opposite sides of the sky, so that as Scorpius rises in the east, Orion flees below the western horizon. ‘Wretched Orion still fears being wounded by the poisonous sting of the scorpion’, noted Germanicus Caesar.

A very different story, also recounted by Hyginus, is that Artemis loved Orion and was seriously considering giving up her vows of chastity to marry him. As the greatest male and female hunters they would have made a formidable couple. But Apollo, twin brother of Artemis, was against the match. One day, while Orion was swimming, Apollo challenged Artemis to demonstrate her skill at archery by hitting a small black object that he pointed out bobbing among the waves. Artemis pierced it with one shot – and was horrified to find that she had killed Orion. Grieving, she placed him among the constellations.

In reality, Orion is the most splendid of constellations, befitting a character who was in legend the tallest and most handsome of men. His right arm and left foot are marked by the brilliant stars Betelgeuse and Rigel, with a distinctive line of three stars forming his belt. ‘No other constellation more accurately represents the figure of a man’, says Germanicus Caesar.

Manilius calls it ‘golden Orion’ and ‘the mightiest of constellations’, and exaggerates its brilliance by saying that, when Orion rises, ‘night feigns the brightness of day and folds its dusky wings’. Manilius describes Orion as ‘stretching his arms over a vast expanse of sky and rising to the stars with no less huge a stride’. In fact, Orion is not an exceptionally large constellation, ranking only 26th in size (smaller, for instance, than Perseus according to the modern constellation boundaries), but the brilliance of its stars gives it the illusion of being much larger.

Orion is also one of the most ancient constellations, being among the few star groups known to the earliest Greek writers such as Homer and Hesiod. Even in the space age, Orion remains one of the few star patterns that non-astronomers can recognize.

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  3. Abigail Bellamy   October 20, 2012 at 7:18 pm

    I observed the Orionids last year and it was amazing! I’ve found great viewing information on this site: http://www.spacedex.com/orionids – Hope you all enjoy the show!


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