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Keep watching for Taurid fireballs

The North and South Taurid meteor showers are going on simultaneously now. They’re considered minor, but produce many fireballs, or bright meteors.

View larger. | Jeff Dai in Tibet captured this Taurid fireball on November 10, 2015.  He wrote:

Jeff Dai in Tibet captured this Taurid fireball in November, 2015, over Yamdrok Lake.

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There are major meteor showers each month until the year’s end, but all of them have to contend with some amount of moonlight. Right now, the moon is waning, making conditions ideal for watching for a minor meteor shower – but a great one – called the Taurids. There are two streams of Taurid meteors – known as North Taurids and South Taurids – and both are known to produce more than their fair share of fireballs, or exceptionally bright meteors. Both showers are going on now.

The American Meteor Society explains what’s awesome about the Taurids:

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.

How many Taurid meteors might you see? The American Meteor Society’s outlook for October 22-28, for the South Taurids, says:

Rates at this time should be near 3 per hour regardless of your location.

For the North Taurids, the outlook for October 22-28 says:

Rates at this time should be near 2 per hour regardless of your location.

That’s a total of 5 meteors per hour. Thus the Taurids’ rate can’t compare with that of the major meteor showers, but just know that – if it’s bright enough – even one meteor can make your night.

View larger South Taurid meteor. Note the Pleiades star cluster above the meteor, and the bright star Aldebaran roughly midway between the Pleiades and the meteor. Image credit: Rocy Raybell

View larger. | South Taurid meteors radiate from the constellation Taurus, which you can find in this photo as the V-shaped pattern above the meteor. That V represents the face of the Bull in Taurus. Image via Flickr user Rocy Raybell.

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).

The original Taurid meteor stream was perturbed by Jupiter into the 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.

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!

Comet Encke over 3 years of its 3.3-year orbit.  Grid lines are 1 astronomical unit (sun-Earth distance) apart. Image via Guy Ottewell. Read Guy's write-up on the 2016 Taurids.

Comet Encke over 3 years of its 3.3-year orbit. Grid lines are 1 astronomical unit (sun-Earth distance) apart. Image via Guy Ottewell. Read Guy Ottewell’s write-up on the 2016 Taurids.

Comet Encke, parent of the Taurid meteor shower. Image credit: Messenger

Comet Encke, parent of the Taurid meteor shower. Image via Messenger.

Bottom line: The long-lasting South and North Taurid meteor showers produce meteors throughout October and November. Watch for them.

Bruce McClure

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