Don’t be surprised if you see a blazing fireball or two streaking across the heavens while you are out trick-or-treating this weekend. There’s no reason for alarm. It’s just the annual Taurid meteor showers reaching their peak of activity.
The Taurid meteors are so named because they seem to spring outward from the stars of our
constellation of Taurus, the Bull, rising in the east as darkness falls in late October and early November. The source of the Taurid meteors has been traced back to a comet named Encke (pronounced “inky”), after the astronomer who first calculated its orbit around the Sun, Johann Franz Encke, in 1819. Astronomers now suspect that Comet 2P/Encke is just a fragment of a much larger body that crumbled into pieces thousands of years ago. The orbit of Comet Encke, with its trail of dusty debris, passes close to the Earth’s orbit in early November. Some of those cometary fragments rain down into Earth’s atmosphere traveling about 17 miles per second. This causes the fragile particles to burn up about 60 miles high as they plow through our protective atmosphere.
Sometime in the distant past, Comet Encke’s debris stream passed close to the giant planet Jupiter and was split into two parallel branches, the South Taurids and the North Taurids. The South Taurid meteors peak around November 5 and the North Taurid meteors peak about a week later, around November 12, but a few Taurid meteors can be seen anytime between September 25 and November 25. While you can see the Taurid meteors in all parts of the sky, their trails will all point
back toward the little Pleiades, or Seven Sisters, star cluster in Taurus.
This isn’t a particularly rich shower of meteors — you’ll only see a half-dozen or so Taurids per hour. But, what it lacks in numbers, it makes up for in bright fireballs.
The November Taurid meteors are some of my favorites to watch because they tend to be big, bright, and slow — so slow, in fact, that you might have enough time to alert your fellow sky watchers to a meteor by yelling “Look!” before the meteor disappears. I often see them out of my car window in early November, dropping toward the horizon when I’m driving home after dark.
With the new moon falling on November 5 this year, the early November sky will be moonless and perfect for meteor watching. It’s almost like having the Fourth of July in November, with Mother Nature and Comet Encke providing the fireworks! ***
Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Co
lorado Mountain College’s Alpine Campus. He is an avid astronomer whose photographs and articles have b
een published all around the world. His “Celestial News” column appears weekly in the Stea
mboat Today newspaper and his “Cosmic Moment” radio spots can be heard on local radio station KFMU. Also, check out Jimmy’s astrophotography website at www.jwestlake.com.