As you gaze up at the magnificent night sky in early November, don't be surprised if you see a blazing fireball or two streaking across the heavens. There's no reason to be alarmed, it's just the annual Taurid meteor shower reaching its peak of activity.
The Taurid meteors are so named because they seem to radiate outward from the stars of the constellation Taurus the Bull, rising in the east as darkness falls. The source of the Taurid meteors has been traced to a comet named Encke that astronomers suspect is just a fragment of a much larger body that crumbled into pieces thousands of years ago. The orbit of Comet Encke and its trail of icy debris passes close to the Earth's own 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 incinerate about 60 miles above the surface of the Earth as they plow through our protective layer of air.
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 about Nov. 5, and the North Taurid meteors peak about Nov. 12.
This isn't a particularly rich shower of meteors - you'll see only a dozen or so per hour. But what they lack in numbers they make up for in size. 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. Many of them are so bright that this month's full moon on Nov. 5 won't be able to drown them out. I often see them out of my car window in early November, dropping toward the horizon when I'm driving home after dark. It's almost like having the Fourth of July in November, with Mother Nature and Comet Encke providing the fireworks.
Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College's Alpine Campus. He is an avid astronomer whose photographs and articles have been published on the Web sites of CNN.com, NASA's "Astronomy Picture of the Day," Spaceweather.com, Space.com, Discover.com, and in Sky & Telescope, Astronomy, Night Sky, Discover, and WeatherWise magazines.