Fireballs fly at peak of Taurids meteor shower this week

The Taurids meteor shower peaks this week, and while modest in number it can be bold in showmanship, known for slashing inky night skies with brilliant, long-lasting fireballs.

Most astronomy sites have the nights of Nov. 11 and 12 pegged for the peak of the Taurids, but because it tends to only fire-off a handful of meteors per hour, a precise pinnacle can be hard to narrow down.

Adding to the confusion is the Taurids are actually broken into two streams, the North Taurids and the South Taurids, which are known as the Taurid Complex.

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Collectively, the Taurids ramble along from late October through most of November.

Still, the online astronomy magazine Earth and Sky marks this weekend as the predicted peak of the North Taurids with the highest chances for a sighting around midnight,

“In some years they produce lots of fireballs,” said Deborah Byrd, editor-in-chief of Earth and Sky, noting that 2015 was a premier year for flashy Taurids. “Some experts say we get spectacular Taurid showers every seven years, but I’m not sure that’s ironclad.”

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A fireball is another term for a very bright meteor, typically brighter than the planet Venus, which is the brightest planet in our solar system.

A bright Taurid fireball recorded by the NASA All Sky Fireball Network station in Tullahoma, Tennessee in 2014.

All Taurids are debris from the comet Encke, which is named after German astronomer Johan Franz Encke, who discovered it in 1786.

It’s the size of the chunks of rock, ice and dust that Comet Encke leaves behind in its 3-year orbit around the sun that account for its fireball-throwing reputation.

Bill Cooke, lead for NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office in Huntsville, Ala., said a Taurid meteor can range in size from a few inches to more than a foot long. Most meteors are caused by particles ranging in size from about that of a small pebble down to a grain of sand.

“They can be very big and the bigger the meteor the brighter it appears,” Cooke said about the Taurids. “They can penetrate deep into the atmosphere.”

Meteor terminology

Cooke said there have been no Taurid meteors found.

“But we’re keeping our eyes open,” he said. “If we can find a Taurid meteorite, we have a piece of the comet Encke in our hands.”

The Taurids and December’s Geminids meteor shower are the two showers with the best chance of having meteors survive their trip through Earth’s atmosphere.

While Byrd said this fall hasn’t been overwhelmed by Taurids so far, avid sky watchers have reported a few brilliant fireballs to the American Meteor Society.

“Even one is worth seeing,” Byrd said.

The moon this weekend will be about 43 percent full in its waning crescent phase, which means it won’t interfere too much with viewing the Taurids.

But the same may not be true for the weather. The National Weather Service in Miami has a 40 percent chance of rain in the forecast for both Saturday and Sunday.

If the sky clears, the Taurids can be seen in all parts of the sky. If you trace them backward they will appear to radiate from the constellation Taurus.

Cooke said the low rate of Taurids means casual observers don’t often see them.

“But even though the rates are low, they are rich in bright meteors,” Cooke said. “Every few years they can put on a spectacular show.”

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