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 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.
… a barely noticeable maximum on October 9 or 10.
Meanwhile, Guy Ottewell’s Astronomical Calendar 2015 predicts that the 2015 South Taurids will exhibit a soft peak in early October. Ottewell went on to explain that until recently, the South Taurid peak was thought to occur in early November.
On the other hand, for the most part, we at EarthSky count on the Observer’s Handbook to provide us with the peak dates for the year’s major meteor showers. And that source lists November 5, 2015 (at 23 hours Universal Time) as the peak time for this year’s South Taurid meteor shower. We find this prediction re-echoed in Sky & Telescope magazine’s Skygazer’s Almanac 2015 as well as other publications.
The trick here is that the long-lasting South Taurid meteor shower (September 10 to November 20) doesn’t have a sharp peak.
These South Taurid meteors steadily ramble along for weeks on end, rarely exhibiting any more than five meteors per hour – even at the various peaks reported by these experts!
From what we have been able to gather, 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 (28 km/17 miles 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 10 to November 20, whereas the 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 in late October and early November.
Higher rates of Taurid fireballs might happen in seven-year cycles, and the last grand fireball display was in 2008. That could be good news for Taurid-watchers in 2015!
Bottom line: The long-lasting South Taurid meteor shower (September 10 to November 20) may well produce a “swarm” of 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.