While the Taurid meteor shower doesn't have a lot of shooting stars to offer, the few that will streak across the sky may be bright, spectacular fireballs.
The annual "shooting star" display, which is active during the last three months of the year, is actually a combination of two meteor showers — the Northern Taurids and the Southern Taurids — both associated with Comet Encke. Skywatchers in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres will have two different peak viewing times. But the estimated dates have some wiggle room, because meteor rates will be consistently low throughout the meteor shower.
In 2020, the Southern Taurid meteor shower, visible from the Southern Hemisphere, peaked in early November. The Northern Taurid meteor shower peaks overnight on Nov. 11-12 and is visible from the Northern Hemisphere. However, viewers in both hemispheres can still see meteors through late November, according to NASA meteor expert Bill Cooke.
"The Taurids are rich in fireballs, so if you see a Taurid it can be very brilliant and it'll knock your eyes out, but their rates absolutely suck," Cooke told Space.com. "It's simply the fact that when a Taurid appears it's usually big and bright." Typically, the Taurids produce only a handful of visible meteors per hour.
"Crumbs" of Comet Encke
As Comet Encke orbits the sun, it leaves a trail of comet crumbs in its wake. In some years, when Jupiter's orbit brings the planet close to the comet's trail, the gas giant's gravity nudges the comet particle stream toward Earth, so more meteors are visible to observers here. Astronomers call this an "outburst." That isn't expected to happen again until 2022, according to the American Meteor Society.
Most meteor showers come from tiny fragments that burn up in Earth's atmosphere, but calculations indicate that Comet Encke's debris could produce meteors big enough to survive the trip to the ground.
These meteorites have not been discovered yet, Cooke said, adding that such a discovery would be a "holy grail of meteorites." No one knows how big a Taurid meteorite might be, but Cooke said the comet chunks are estimated to weigh a few ounces.
Related: How comets cause meteor showers
When to see them
Cooke said that it can be hard to pick the best day to look for the Taurids, because the meteor shower is visible for several weeks. The best results will happen in the early morning (just before dawn) from any dark location. On peak viewing days, there may be only a few more meteors per hour than on other days, so the difference is hardly noticeable, he said.
"The rates are low, so be prepared to look for a while," Cooke said.
Observers may also spot some stray shooting stars that are unrelated to the Taurids. These will appear to originate somewhere other than the constellation of Taurus, the bull, and will travel in random directions through the night sky. Moonlight won't overly interfere with the peak of the northern Taurids, but watch for it at other times around the peak (and try to time your observations for when the moon is not in the sky).
Where to look
The Taurids are visible practically anywhere on Earth, except for the South Pole. They appear to originate in the constellation Taurus, the bull. To find Taurus, look for the constellation Orion and then peer to the northeast to find the red star Aldebaran, the star in the bull's eye.
Don't look directly at Taurus to find meteors; the shooting stars will be visible all over the night sky. Make sure to move your gaze around the nearby constellations. Meteors closer to the radiant have shorter trails and are more difficult to spot. If you look only at Taurus, you might miss the shooting stars with the most spectacular trails.
What causes the Taurids?
The Taurids come from Comet Encke, a short-term periodic comet that orbits the sun about once every 3.3 years. It was first spotted by Pierre Mechain in 1786 and was first recognized as a periodic comet in the 1800s by Johann Franz Encke.
As the comet moves around the solar system, it leaves behind bits of material that are called meteoroids. If those comet chunks enter the Earth's atmosphere, they are called meteors. The friction they encounter while speeding through the Earth's atmosphere heats them up, sometimes making them visible from the ground. Those chunks that reach the ground, if ever discovered, would be called meteorites.
How to get the best view
Meteor showers require no special equipment to view. Just travel to an area that has few lights, away from major cities. Get comfortable on your back, staring straight up at the sky. This will let you view more meteors than by staring in one direction.
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