Comet Encke as seen from Spitzer Space Telescope. Credit: NASA
This year’s Taurid meteor shower is being dubbed a meteor ‘swarm.’ It sounds ominous, but it just means this year’s shower is expected to see an increase in very bright meteors from the previous year.
The Taurids aren’t as well known as the Perseids or Leonids and don’t produce as many meteors per hour. What they don’t produce in number, they make up for in size. Taurids are known for producing slow-moving, bright fireballs.
Here’s what you need to know about this month’s Taurid meteor shower.
Pieces of Comet Encke
The Taurids are fragments of Comet Encke, a 3-mile-wide slab of ice and rock. Encke was first discovered in 1786 by French astronomer Pierre Méchain. But it wouldn’t be recognized as a periodic comet until 1819 when the comet’s namesake, Johann Franz Encke, calculated its orbit.
Scientists believe Comet Encke and the Taurid meteor shower are the remnants of a much larger comet that broke up about 20,000 years ago. The fragments we see every November were first seen in the 18th century.
Taurids are slow… for a meteor shower
According to NASA’s Danielle Moser, Taurids cruise into our atmosphere at 60,000 to 65,000 miles per hour. Seems fast, right? That’s nothing compared to the Leonids which slam towards Earth at 160,000 miles per hour. Why the big difference in speed? It’s all about the encounter geometry says Moser. “How the orbits of the meteoroid stream and Earth intersect — and the orbit of the parent body,” Moser wrote in a recent Reddit AMA.
With the lower speed and (relatively) larger fragments, Taurids can produce incredible fireballs you won’t soon forget. The larger fragments also mean that a Taurid meteor could, theoretically, survive to the ground. NASA’s Bill Cooke says the Taurids are one of two meteor showers that could potentially put a meteorite on the ground (the Geminids can too). They haven’t found any yet, but it’s possible.
Finding one is a longshot, but recovering a piece of a comet on Earth would be huge for scientists.
Ok, now when/where do I look?
You can head outside starting tonight through the next couple of weeks. The radiant point (where the meteors appear to originate from) is near the Taurus constellation. But the radiant point isn’t that important since the meteors will streak all over the sky. Just lay back and get comfortable.
As for when? Between 12 a.m and 3 a.m. local time is best.
The Taurids are actually split into two separate events – South Taurids and North Taurids. The South Taurids will peak this week with the North Taurids peaking next week. Don’t worry about the peaks, though. You’re looking for just one bright fireball to light up the night sky. If you see one, it will put all the other meteor showers to shame.
November stays busy with Leonids
If you miss out on the Taurids, the Leonid meteor shower will peak in the early morning hours of November 18. And unfortunately for us, this year’s Leonids won’t produce a meteor storm. Astronomers are expecting about 10 to 20 per hour.
Back in 1966, people in the southwest United States reported seeing 40 to 50 meteors per second! That’s up to 3,000 meteors per minute.
I’ll have a write-up on the Leonids as we get closer to its peak.