Astronomy Essentials

Taurid meteors fly, now through December

South Taurid meteors: Star chart showing constellation Taurus with two sets of radial arrows, one near the Pleiades.
The Taurid meteors consist of 2 streams, the South Taurid meteors and North Taurid meteors. Both streams appear to originate from the constellation Taurus the Bull. You might see South or North Taurids throughout October and into November.

Meteor season through 2021’s end

Yes, the 2021 Perseids were grand. But now it’s meteor season, again! There are several good showers between now and the end of the year. Check out the Draconids, peaking on the evening of October 8. And the Orionids, peaking around the morning of October 20. And there are more. Some of these showers have relatively strong peaks. And then there are the Taurid meteors, which don’t. Instead, they have staying power, rambling along steadily for weeks and months in Northern Hemisphere autumn.

The South Taurids are the better known of the two showers. You might see a South Taurid meteor anytime from about September 10 to November 20. That’s when Earth is plowing through the meteor stream – the stream of comet debris in space – that creates this meteor shower.

The North Taurids stem from a nearby, but slightly different stream. They’re active from about October 20 to December 10. Both showers produce about 5 meteors per hour (10 total when they overlap). And they’ve been known to produce fireballs, or especially bright meteors. So they’re worth your time!

There’s some evidence that higher rates of Taurid fireballs happen in 7-year cycles. And the last grand fireball display was in 2015. It was really fun! Photos and video of Taurid fireballs here.

By the way, sometimes, you’ll find conflicting information about the peak dates for meteor showers. That’s especially true for showers like the South and North Taurids, which don’t have a definite peak. But don’t worry about a peak for these showers. Unless you’re a meteor expert, gathering data for scientific purposes, it’s not super meaningful. Just assume the long-lasting South and North Taurid showers will be producing meteors throughout October and into November and December. And, when you block out some meteor-watching time for yourself, be aware of the moon phase.

The moon and the 2021 Taurid meteors

This year, the new moon happens on October 6. So in the early part of October 2021, there’s a waning moon in the early morning sky, rising just before the sun in the east. Most meteor showers are best from midnight to dawn, and that’s true of the South and North Taurids, too. A little waning moon won’t hinder them.

By about October 9 or 10, you might notice a thin crescent moon – a waxing crescent – back in the evening sky. It’ll still be gone from the sky after midnight, though. Full moon will fall on October 20, 2021. Around that time, the sky will be flooded with moonlight all night.

Then the moon will be waning again. The last few days of October will feature a waning crescent rising shortly before sunup again, always fun to see. And new moon will come again on November 4, 2021.

The source of the Taurids

From what we’ve 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 sec).

Apparently, the original Taurid stream had been perturbed by Jupiter into two branches: South and North Taurids.

Star field. Tiny group of stars above small triangle of stars with thin white streak near horizon.
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 via Flickr user Rocky Raybell.

When are the peaks, and do we care?

The story of the predicted peaks for the Taurids – which vary from place to place across the internet – is interesting.

For the most part, we count on the Observer’s Handbook to provide us with the peak dates for the year’s major meteor showers. The Observer’s Handbook 2021 lists November 5 (at about 06:00 UTC) as the peak time for the 2021 South Taurid meteor shower.

Yet two other trusted sources give a different date for the South Taurid peak. The International Meteor Organization (IMO) says the night of October 10. The American Meteor Society (AMS) gives the peak night in 2021 as November 2-3.

Why don’t the dates agree?

Astronomer Guy Ottewell, in his 2012 Astronomical Calendar, also mentioned the discrepancy for the peak date of the South Taurid meteor shower. He explained:

Fresh evidence from the International Meteor Organization suggests the southern branch, rather than reaching its maximum in early November as long believed, actually has its peak in October instead.

See what we mean? There are subtleties here.

Brilliant green streak seen through thin clouds with white explosion at lower end.
A cool shot of a Taurid fireball from November 11, 2015, by Bill Allen. Thanks, Bill! By all reports, this shower was amazing in 2015.

Bottom line: You might see a South Taurid meteor anytime from about September 10 to November 20. That’s when Earth is plowing through the meteor stream – the stream of comet debris in space – that creates this meteor shower. The North Taurids stem from a nearby, but slightly different stream. They’re active from about October 20 to December 10. Both showers produce about 5 meteors per hour (10 total when they overlap).

Posted 
October 2, 2021
 in 
Astronomy Essentials

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Deborah Byrd

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