It’s October, and meteor season is upon us with major meteor showers each month until the year’s end. There are always minor meteor showers happening, too, and a good one to be aware of this month is the Taurid meteor shower, which may well produce a swarm of fireballs – or exceptionally bright meteors – in late October and early November. That’s regardless of which date the South Taurid meteor shower peaks, by the way, and dates for the peak this year, as always, are a bit uncertain.
Various sources give wildly different dates for the peak date of the South Taurid shower. Two trusted sources give October 10 (or 9) as the peak for the South Taurid peak in 2016. The International Meteor Organization (IMO) is one, and the American Meteor Society (AMS) is the other. The Taurids (both South and North Taurids, which peak in November) are long, spread-out showers with no well-defined peak, and only a handful of meteors per hour on the peak nights (5-7 perhaps). But the AMS explains what’s awesome about them:
The Taurids (both branches) are rich in fireballs and are often responsible for increased number of fireball reports from September through November.
Did we say fireballs? Yes! Last year, October and early November 2015, was an incredible year for the long-lasting Taurids. We received many, many photos of fireballs from watchful observers, which you can see here.
This year may or may not be as good for fireball-watching, but … the Taurids are well worth knowing about and watching for.
The Taurid meteor stream consists of an extremely wide roadway of far-flung debris left behind by Comet 2P Encke. When Earth travels through this belt of comet debris, bits and pieces of Comet 2P Encke smash into the Earth’s upper atmosphere to vaporize as rather slow-moving Taurid meteors (17 miles/28 km per second).
Yet, the Taurids are known for having a high percentage of fireballs.
Apparently, the original Taurid stream had been perturbed by Jupiter into two branches: South and North Taurids. The South Taurids, the more prominent of the two, are active from about September 25 to November 25, whereas the (overlapping) North Taurids are active from about October 20 to December 10. It’s now thought that the South Taurid peak (October 10) comes about one month before the North Taurid peak (November 12).
Peak dates aside, meteor aficionados will be on the lookout as the South and North Taurids simultaneously produce meteors throughout October and into early November.
Last year (2015), experts were saying that higher rates of Taurid fireballs might happen in seven-year cycles, and that the last grand fireball display was in 2008. That was good news for Taurid-watchers in 2015, and last year’s shower did apparently produce many fireballs.
What about this year? Will there be lingering effects from last year’s fireball extravaganza?
The only way to know is to watch!
Bottom line: The long-lasting South Taurid meteor shower (September 25 to November 25) may well produce fireballs this month or early next month. Watch for them.
Bruce McClure has served as lead writer for EarthSky's popular Tonight pages since 2004. He's a sundial aficionado, whose love for the heavens has taken him to Lake Titicaca in Bolivia and sailing in the North Atlantic, where he earned his celestial navigation certificate through the School of Ocean Sailing and Navigation. He also writes and hosts public astronomy programs and planetarium programs in and around his home in upstate New York.