Celestial News: Meteors from Taurus to light up our sky
November 3, 2017
Don't be surprised if you see a blazing fireball or two streaking across the heavens during the early evening next week. It's time for the annual Taurid meteor shower to reach its peak of activity.
The Taurid meteors are so named because they seem to originate 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, Johann Franz Encke, who first calculated its orbit around the sun 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 and North Taurids.
The South Taurid meteor shower already peaked in mid-October, but the North Taurid meteors will peak near Nov. 10 to 11. A few Taurid meteors can be seen anytime between Sept. 25 and Nov. 25.
This isn't a particularly rich shower of meteors — you'll only see a half-dozen or so Taurids each 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. I often see them out of my car window in late October and early November, dropping toward the horizon while I'm driving down the road after dark.
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Some astronomers predict that a more recent pass of the North Taurid debris stream by Jupiter might result in a dramatic outburst of Taurid meteors in November 2019. Can't wait for that one.
Although Taurid meteors will appear in all parts of the sky, their trails will all point back toward the stars of our constellation Taurus.
On crisp November evenings, the stars of Taurus are on the rise in the eastern sky around 8 p.m. Taurus is one of the twelve constellations of the zodiac and, as such, serves from time to time as a backdrop for the sun, moon and planets. The sun passes through Taurus in May and June each year, rendering the constellation unobservable for several weeks during the late spring.
The Moon pays a monthly visit to the stars of Taurus, too, as it waxes and wanes through its cycle of phases. Look for Taurus' brightest star, Aldebaran, right beside the western edge of the nearly full moon on Sunday night November 5. Binoculars will enhance the view.
Taurus is not only home to the flashy orange giant star Aldebaran — the 13th brightest star in our night sky — but also to two naked eye star clusters. One cluster, called the Hyades, composes the distinctive "V" shaped pattern of the bull's face, punctuated on the left side by Aldebaran itself. Aldebaran marks the glaring red eyeball of this celestial bull.
Despite appearances, Aldebaran is not a true member of the Hyades star cluster, but is a much closer foreground star that we see superimposed on the cluster. The Hyades cluster is the closest star cluster to Earth, lying at a distance of 151 light years away. Aldebaran is less than half that distance away from us.
Leading Aldebaran and the Hyades westward across the sky is Taurus' second star cluster, the Pleiades, marking the bull's shoulder. Also called the Seven Sisters and often mistaken for the Little Dipper, the Pleiades star cluster is one of the most remarkable naked eye sights in the whole sky.
It lies nearly twice as far from us as the Hyades and, so, appears much smaller in size, but its importance to ancient sky-watchers cannot be overstated. Taurus' alpha star, Aldebaran, received its name from the Arabic words that mean "The Follower," because it reverently follows the Pleiades across the heavens.
The Japanese name for the Pleiades cluster is the Subaru, and a likeness of the little star cluster adorns every Subaru car on the road.
To complete the pattern of Taurus the Bull, extend each fork of the V marking his face and you will come to the two stars marking the tips of his horns. Only then can you appreciate the colossal size of this celestial bovine.
It was there, between the horns of Taurus, that a star exploded into view July 4, 1054. The Supernova of 1054 became visible in broad daylight and could be seen by the naked eye for many months before it faded from view.
Today, when astronomers aim their telescopes at that spot in the sky, they can see the expanding debris cloud from the exploded star. We know it as the Crab Nebula, object number ONE in Charles Messier's famous list of celestial fuzz balls.
Jimmy Westlake recently retired from full time teaching at Colorado Mountain College's Steamboat campus, after nineteen years as professor of physical sciences, and is looking forward to spending a lot more time under the starry sky. His “Celestial News” column appears monthly in the Steamboat Today. Check out Westlake’s astrophotography website at jwestlake.com.