Little bits of sky will fall tonight, and if you're lucky and blessed with clear weather, you may be treated to a pleasant, quiet show. The Orionid meteor shower peaks after midnight, and it's best seen in the hours before dawn on Sunday.
The Orionids, which happen every October like clockwork, have a famous source. The Earth is passing through the orbit of Halley's Comet -- and even though the comet itself is far away, headed toward the outer reaches of the solar system, debris from it has spread out along its path.
The comet itself should be a sight to see if you can hang on for its next pass in the summer of 2061, but in the meantime it gives us this weekend's meteor shower -- shooting stars, many caused by specks of rock or ice no larger than grains of rice, plowing into the upper atmosphere at up to 150,000 miles per hour and burning up.
"Since 2006, the Orionids have been one of the best showers of the year, with counts in some years up to 60 or more meteors per hour," said Bill Cooke of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office in Huntsville, Ala. "If you don't want to wait until 2061, this is a way to see a bit of Halley's Comet."
The Orionids appear to come from the constellation of Orion the hunter, which dominates the evening sky in the Northern Hemisphere in late fall and winter.
In general, there are more shooting stars in the morning hours because the morning side of the Earth faces forward as we orbit the sun, so it's less shielded. While the shower actually peaks Sunday morning for the U.S., meteors are often spotted several nights before and after.
The best way to watch them is to find a nice, dark place with no street lights and as few trees as possible, and look up. You may want to bring a lawn chair or a blanket. The streaks may be anywhere in the sky, though they'll all appear to come from the direction of Orion. It should be visible from any place with clear weather.
Conveniently, there will only be a crescent moon Saturday evening, setting well before the meteor shower peaks after midnight.
Be alert; most meteors flit silently across the sky in a second or less, sometimes in spurts. The Orionids are one of about 10 significant meteor showers that happen each year; if you like this one, you can also see the Geminid shower on the night of Dec. 13 or the Perseids next August.
What if the weather is poor where you are? You're out of luck. Get some sleep.