Jimmy Westlake: Watch for Taurid fireballs this week
Don’t be surprised if you see a blazing fireball or two streaking across the heavens during the early evening this week. There’s no reason for alarm. It’s just the annual Taurid meteor showers reaching their peak of activity.
The Taurid meteors are so named because they seem to spring outward from the stars of our constellation of Taurus, the Bull, rising in the east as darkness falls in early November. The source of the Taurid meteors has been traced back to a comet named Encke (pronounced “inky”), after the astronomer who first calculated its orbit around the Sun, Johann Franz Encke, in 1819.
Astronomers now suspect that Comet 2P/Encke is just a fragment of a much larger body that crumbled into pieces thousands of years ago. The orbit of Comet 2P/Encke, with its trail of dusty debris, passes close to the Earth’s orbit in early November.
Some of those cometary fragments rain down into Earth’s atmosphere, traveling about 17 miles per second. This causes the fragile particles to burn up about 60 miles high as they plow through our protective atmosphere.
Sometime in the distant past, Comet Encke’s debris stream passed close to the giant planet Jupiter and was split into two parallel branches, the South Taurids and the North Taurids. The South Taurid meteors peak around Nov. 5, and the North Taurid meteors peak about a week later, around Nov. 12, but a few Taurid meteors can be seen anytime between Sept. 25 and Nov. 25.
While you can see the Taurid meteors in all parts of the sky, their trails will all point back toward the constellation of Taurus, not far from the little Pleiades, or Seven Sisters, star cluster.
This isn’t a particularly rich shower of meteors — you’ll only see a half-dozen or so Taurids per hour. But, what it lacks in numbers, it makes up for in bright fireballs.
The November Taurid meteors are some of my favorites to watch because they tend to be big, bright and slow — so slow, in fact, that you might have enough time to alert your fellow sky watchers to a meteor by yelling “Look!” before the meteor disappears.
I often see them out of my car window in late October and early November, dropping toward the horizon while I’m driving home from work after dark. Enjoy the fireworks.
Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College’s Alpine Campus in Steamboat Springs. His “Celestial News” column appears weekly in the Steamboat Today newspaper and his “Cosmic Moment” radio spots can be heard on local radio station KFMU. Check out Jimmy’s astrophotography website at http://www.jwestlake.com.
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