Astronomy Essentials

Taurid meteors in 2022: All you need to know

Taurid meteors: Diagram showing the earth and a meteor shower.
The South Taurids – the better known of the 2 displays of Taurid meteors – run from about September 10 to November 20. That’s when Earth passes through the stream of cometary debris that Comet 2P/Encke left behind. Watch around midnight, when the radiant is highest in the sky. Image via Guy Ottewell. Used with permission.

Predicted peak: The South Taurids’ predicted* peak is November 5, 2022, at 18 UTC. The North Taurids’ predicted* peak is November 12, 2022, at 18 UTC. But the South and North Taurids don’t have very definite peaks. They ramble along in October and November and are especially noticeable from late October into early November, when they overlap.
When to watch: Best around midnight, and probably best from late October into early November.
Overall duration of shower: The South Taurids run from about September 23 to November 12. North Taurids are active from about October 13 to December 2.
Radiant: Rises in early evening, highest in the sky around midnight. See chart below.
Nearest moon phase: In 2022, new moon falls on October 25. Full moon is November 8. So late October – when the two showers overlap and there’s no moon – might be excellent for the Taurids in 2022. But you’ll catch Taurid meteors throughout October and November. This custom sunrise-set calendar can show you moon rising times for your location. Be sure to check the moon rising time box.
Expected meteors at peak, under ideal conditions: Under dark skies with no moon, both the South and North Taurid meteor showers produce about 5 meteors per hour (10 total when they overlap). In 2022, watch for fireballs.
Note: Taurid meteors tend to be slow-moving but sometimes very bright. The showers sometimes produce fireballs, which might make their cyclical reappearance in 2022. The American Meteor Society pointed to “a seven-year periodicity” with Taurid fireballs. 2008 and 2015 both produced them. 2022 might as well. The last Taurid fireball display, in 2015, was really fun! Photos and video of Taurid fireballs here. Watch for them in 2022!

Report a fireball (very bright meteor) to the American Meteor Society: it’s fun and easy!

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 radiant point appear to originate from the constellation Taurus the Bull. In October and November, this constellation is highest in the sky in the middle of the night.

The Northern Taurids parent comet

From the late, great Don Machholz (1952-2022), who discovered 12 comets …

The object responsible for the Northern Taurid meteor shower is believed to be an asteroid. And that asteroid is related to a comet.

The asteroid is named 2004 TG10. The Spacewatch program discovered it on October 8, 2004. Its orbit around the sun closely matches that of periodic Comet Encke (officially known as 2P/Encke). Scientists believe this asteroid was once part of a much larger object known as the Encke Complex.

The most widely accepted theory is that about 20,000 years ago, a much larger object broke up, creating Comet Encke and several asteroids and meteor showers. Scientists named this group of resultant objects after the most prominent member of the group: Comet Encke. Hence, the Encke Complex.

One recent study indicates that the asteroid 2004 TG10 is only one of 10 related asteroids that may be responsible for this meteor shower. If that is true, then no single asteroid is producing the material causing the Northern Taurid meteors.

How is a mystery like this solved? Time and teamwork. Special night-time video cameras record incoming meteors, and computers calculate the orbit almost immediately. Scientists compare these orbits to known objects, such as comets and asteroids. A direct match is unlikely, because any piece of material ejected from a comet or asteroid – perhaps hundreds of years ago – has been subjected to solar radiation and planetary perturbations, changing its path around the sun. So, its final orbit, just before it enters our atmosphere, is likely different than the orbit it originated from. Astronomers who specialize in celestial mechanics will be the ones to bring us the solution.

Cameras and computers are likely to give us a better picture and a more thorough understanding of the Northern Taurids meteor shower.

The Southern Taurids parent comet

From Don Machholz

The material we see as meteors from the Southern Taurids radiant comes from the comet known as Encke’s Comet. Officially known as 2P/Encke, this comet was discovered four times before it received its name, and the name it has is not for one of the discoverers.

The French comet hunter Pierre Mechian discovered it on January 17, 1786. He observed the comet for only three days and did not calculate its orbit. Next up was Caroline Herschel of England, who found it on November 7, 1795, 10 years later. She tracked it for 23 days but did not calculate an accurate orbit. Ten years later, Frenchman Jean-Louis Pons, the greatest visual comet hunter of all time, picked it up on October 20, 1805. Within hours of Pons’ discovery, Hofrath Huth of Germany and Bovard in Paris picked it up too. This time they followed it for 32 days.

Enter Johann Franz Encke. Using these positions, he calculated an orbit for this comet and predicted that it would return. End of story? No, because he predicted it would return in 12.12 years. And it didn’t.

Then, on November 26, 1818, Pons picked up a comet and tracked it for 48 days. Encke calculated an orbit for this one, and using some new computing techniques, came up with an orbital solution suggesting the comet takes only 3.3 years to go around the sun once. After six weeks of work, he was also able to link this comet to the comets of 1786, 1795 and 1805. He then correctly predicted that it would return in 1822. Based upon his work correctly calculating the comet’s orbit, the comet received the name Encke.

Comet Encke has the shortest orbital period of any major comet in our solar system. At its closest, it gets as close to the sun as does the planet Mercury, the planet closest to the sun. The orbit is stable, and the comet has probably been in the same orbit for thousands of years.

A recent theory is that Comet Encke was once part of a larger comet that broke up about 20,000 years ago. This event produced several small asteroids and debris that now forms this meteor shower. And there are more. Scientists attribute at least three other meteor showers to Comet Encke. One stream of material might have delivered the object responsible for the Tunguska meteor event of 1908. This whole system is known as the Encke Complex.

Fuzzy, bright round ball with long faint tail against star field.
Comet Encke, parent of the Taurid meteor shower. Image via MESSENGER.

The next return of Comet Encke will be in October 2023. Observers in the Northern Hemisphere will have a good view of the comet in the morning sky, where it might get as bright as magnitude seven, meaning you will need binoculars to see it. The fireballs left behind by the comet are much brighter and much more interesting.

Taurid fireballs in 2022?

The American Meteor Society said in 2022:

When the two showers are active simultaneously in late October and early November, there is sometimes a notable increase in the fireball activity. There seems to be a seven-year periodicity with these fireballs. 2008 and 2015 both produced remarkable fireball activity. 2022 may be the next opportunity.

Diagram showing the earth and a meteor shower.
The North Taurids are active from about October 20 to December 10. Like the South Taurids, they also come from Comet 2P/Encke. Apparently, the gravity of the giant Jupiter split this comet’s meteor stream into 2 branches: the South and North Taurids. Image via Guy Ottewell.

Why don’t the dates agree?

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 tried-and-true Observer’s Handbook, from the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, to provide us with the peak dates for the year’s major meteor showers. They’ve been around since at least 1868. Amateur astronomers trust them and rely upon their information.

The Observer’s Handbook 2022 lists 18 UTC on November 5 as the peak for the South Taurids, for example.

Yet two other trusted sources give a different date for the South Taurid peak. The International Meteor Organization (IMO) and the American Meteor Society (AMS) both give the peak night in 2022 as October 9-10.

It’s not super important because, as mentioned above, the best time to watch the South Taurids in 2022 is probably late October into early November. That’s partly because October 10 is 2022’s full Hunter’s Moon. And it’s partly because the South and North Taurids overlap in late October and early November, so you’re likely to see more of them then.

But why are the listed peak dates different? A big reason is that astronomers are always learning new things. In 2021, for example, the American Meteor Society listed the peak date of the South Taurids in early November. But evidence from the IMO – based on observed and reported rates by amateur astronomers – suggested for some years that the South Taurids, rather than reaching a peak in early November (as long believed), has its peak in October instead. And apparently the AMS has finally decided to agree.

See what we mean? There are subtleties here. It’s nature! We don’t have it entirely pinned down.

Composite image showing constellation Taurus and several meteors radiating from it.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Joel Weatherly Edmonton, Alberta, Canada created this composite from images captured on the morning of November 11, 2020. He wrote, “This is a composite image featuring Taurus and four meteors that I observed while out for the Northern Taurids meteor shower. The two brightest meteors left behind dust trails.” Thank you, Joel!

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 five meteors per hour (10 total when they overlap).

*Predicted peak times and dates for 2022 meteor showers are from the American Meteor Society. Note that meteor shower peak times can vary.

Meteor showers: Tips for watching the show

Posted 
January 2, 2022
 in 
Astronomy Essentials

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