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Watch for Taurid fireballs!

Tonight – November 4, 2016 – might present the peak night for the annual South Taurid meteor shower. Tomorrow night (November 5) may be good as well. Though a modest shower, with a predicted peak rate of perhaps 5 meteors per hour, The Taurids are known for having a rather high percentage of fireballs. The Taurids just might surprise you with a flamboyant fireball or two, as these meteors light up the sky from late night to dawn.

The moon is now in a waxing crescent phase. Setting in the early evening, that means no moonlight to ruin the prime time viewing hours, centered on about 12:30 a.m. local time. We’re guaranteed to have deliciously dark skies for this year’s South Taurid shower, to highlight any Taurid fireball that might come whizzing by. Seeing a Taurid fireball – even if it’s just one – counts as a big thrill.

And, by the way, a fireball is just another word for a particularly bright meteor.

The other Taurid shower – the North Taurids – should add a few more meteors to the mix from late night until dawn, on the nights of November 5 and 6. Unfortunately, The forecast doesn’t call for A Taurid swarm as in 2015. But it may be worth watching all the same, especially given moon-free skies.

As a general rule, the Taurid showers do not exhibit strong peaks. The two Taurid showers tend to overlap and to plateau in activity during the first few weeks in November. On any given night, these rather slow-moving meteors produce the greatest numbers in the few hours after midnight, perhaps as many as 7-10 meteors per hour on a moonless night. However, the Taurids may have a 7-year cycle of bright fireballs, and 2015 may have been a peak year! Read more about that, and see more fireball photos, here.

See it! Best photos of 2015 Taurid fireballs

If you trace the South Taurid meteors backwards, they all appear to radiate from the constellation Taurus the Bull. As always, you don’t have to identify a meteor shower’s radiant point to watch the meteor shower. Just lie back comfortably and look up, in the hours between midnight and dawn.

Now … let’s talk more about meteor shower radiant points. Take a look at the two photos below. Both have about the same star background (the second is slightly later at night than the first). Eliot Herman captured both photos within about a week of each other – the first on the morning of October 23, 2015, and the second on the morning of November 1, 2015. What’s different about these two photos? Well, the second one has a bright moon, but that’s not what we’re asking you to notice. When you look at these two photos, you’re seeing meteors streaking from two different radiant points. So you know these are meteors in two different showers.

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Meteor streaking across Orion on the morning of the 2015 Orionid meteor shower - October 23, 2015.  Photo by Eliot Herman in Tucson, Arizona.

View larger. | Meteor streaking across the constellation Orion on the morning of the 2015 Orionid meteor shower – October 23, 2015. You’ll recognize Orion from his Belt: the short, straight row of three medium-bright stars in the constellation’s middle. Is this an Orionid meteor? Probably not. Although it’s streaking across Orion, it’s not really radiating from Orion. It’s probably a random meteor, or part of one of the many minor showers going on constantly throughout Earth’s year. Photo by Eliot Herman in Tucson, Arizona.

View larger. | Taurid fireball caught by Eliot Herman in Tucson at 3:38 a.m. on November 1, 2015.  Thank you, Elliot!

View larger. | If you know the constellations, you can easily see that this meteor is radiating from the constellation Taurus. See that V-shaped pattern to the right of Orion? The three Belt stars of Orion point to it. That’s the face of Taurus the Bull. This is a Taurid fireball caught by Eliot Herman in Tucson at 3:38 a.m. on November 1, 2015. The bright object is the moon! Thank you, Elliot.

In fact, the radiant points for both early November meteor showers – the South Taurids and North Taurids – are in the constellation Taurus. As can be expected, the radiant point for the South Taurids is found in southern Taurus, while that of the North Taurids is found in northern Taurus.

Taurus the Bull – the Taurid showers’ radiant point – climbs upward during the evening hours and reaches its highest point in the sky after midnight. The higher that Taurus appears in your sky, the more Taurid meteors that are likely to fly.

Taurus itself is full of interesting things to see such as the Pleiades star cluster, the V-shaped Hyades cluster with bright Aldebaran in its midst.

Just be aware … you don’t need to find Taurus to watch the Taurid shower, for these meteors streak all over the sky.

Bottom line: The annual South Taurid meteor shower peaks in early November 2016. Because the Taurids are known for putting out bright fireballs, you might even see one or two lighting up the starry sky.

View larger. | The three stars of Orion always point to Aldebaran, the fiery eye of the Bull in the constellation Taurus.

EarthSky’s meteor shower guide for 2016

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Bruce McClure