Excited about cooler temperatures and fall activities? Be sure to save some of that outdoor enthusiasm for the night sky.
On Nov. 12 and 13, the annual Taurid meteor shower will peak for the second time this month for sky watchers in North America. Unlike other celestial fireworks from recurring showers like the Perseids or Leonids, the Taurids aren't so famous for their frequency as they are for the extremely bright fireballs.
The dust from the Taurids, which originate from debris left behind by Comet Encke, hits the Earth’s atmosphere at 65,000 miles per hour and burns up, creating the Taurid meteor shower, according to NASA. Most years the shower is weak, and only a few Taurid meteors can be seen each night. However, there's no full moon to disrupt viewing, so there's a chance of catching a glimpse of a few fireballs.
Where and when to look
A sky map showing the location of the north and south Taurids. (Photo: Star Chart/Twitter)
The Taurids include two streams of meteors that broke off from Comet Encke in separate events. The south Taurid peaked from Nov. 4 to 5, while the north peaks from Nov. 12 to 13. This one-two punch is what creates such a prolonged window to catch the shower in action.
Like other night sky events, it's best to seek out a dark location far away from light pollution and with an unobstructed view of the heavens. Look towards the constellation Taurus after it has risen above the horizon. Astronomers recommend waiting until after midnight, but you'll likely catch some fireballs with a little patience anytime after the sun has fully set.
Great balls of fire
In some years, Jupiter's gravity nudges the shower toward Earth, making more meteors visible. Astronomers call this an "outburst," and that isn't expected to happen this year, as Space.com reports. However, the latest predictions forecast an outburst in 2019, NASA meteor expert Bill Cooke told Space.com.
What makes the Taurids produce a greater stream of large fireballs compared to other meteor showers? One theory is that Comet Encke is a piece of what was once a "super-comet" that broke up in our solar system some 20,000-30,000 years ago. The remains of this super comet (with average sizes ranging from pebbles to small stones) may account for the larger-than-normal fireballs that accompany the Taurids.
Despite their appearance blazing high above, Cooke revealed in a Reddit AMA that we've nothing to fear from these celestial fireworks.
"The odds of a Taurid making it to the ground are small, but if one did make it, it would likely weigh less than a couple of kilograms," he wrote. "The damage caused by this would be very small (broken car window, etc.). Most people think meteorites are these smoking-hot rocks in the middle of a crater, when the truth is the exact opposite. By the time a meteorite hits ground, it is cool enough to handle, and unless it is really big, there is no crater produced."
So bundle up, lay down on your back and take in one of the best meteor showers of the year. You're bound to see something spectacular fly across the night sky.
Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was originally published in November 2015.