Steamboat Springs Don’t be surprised if you see a blazing fireball or two streaking across the heavens while you are driving home after dark this week. There’s no reason for alarm. It’s just the annual Taurid meteor showers reaching their peak of activity.
Jimmy Westlake's Celestial News column appears Tuesdays in the Steamboat Today.
Find more columns by Westlake here.
The Taurid meteors are so named because they seem to radiate outward from the direction of our constellation of Taurus the Bull. Taurus is just rising in the east as darkness falls in early November. The source of the Taurid meteors has been traced to a little comet named Encke (pronounced “inky”), after the astronomer who first calculated its orbit around the sun in 1819, Johann Franz Encke. 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 Encke, with its trail of pebbly debris, passes close to the Earth’s orbit in early November. Some of those cometary fragments rain down onto the Earth, traveling about 17 miles per second. Hitting the atmosphere at this fast speed causes the fragile particles to burn up in a colorful streak of light about 60 miles over our heads.
Sometime in the distant past, Encke’s debris stream passed close to the giant planet Jupiter and was split into two parallel branches, the South Taurid and the North Taurid. The South Taurid meteors peak Tuesday and the North Taurid meteors peak about a week later on 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 stars of Taurus the Bull.
This isn’t a particularly rich shower of meteors — you’ll only see a half-dozen or so for each hour of skywatching — 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, 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 early November, dropping toward the horizon when I’m driving home after dark.
After the new moon Sunday, early evenings will be nice and dark for meteor watching for several days. If we can shake the snow clouds and get some clear skies this coming week, we just might be treated to some nice Taurid fireballs.
Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College's Alpine Campus. 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. Visit Jimmy’s astrophotography website at www.jwestlake.com.