The Taurid meteor shower is expected to peak tonight, November 12, 2012, around 1am. The meteors should be very visible this year because the moon is currently in its waning crescent phase.
The best time to view the meteor shower is just after midnight (right now, on the west coast), but they should remain visible for the next few nights. The North Taurids are a relatively slow meteor shower, about 10 meteors per hour on a dark night, but they also tend to be slow moving and have larger meteors than many other showers. They often produce large fireballs, that are very visible.
“The North Taurid meteors derive their name from the constellation Taurus the Bull. If you trace the paths of the Taurid meteors backward, you’ll see they appear to radiate from near the famous Pleiades star cluster of this constellation on their peak nights. You don’t have to find Taurus, though, to watch the North Taurid meteors. These slow-moving meteors can light up any part of the starry heavens, streaking through a wide variety of constellations.”
“This constellation is fairly easy to find in 2012 because the dazzling planet Jupiter shines in front of Taurus this year. You can’t miss Jupiter lighting up the eastern sky at early to mid-evening, Next year at this time, Jupiter will be in the constellation Gemini, the radiant point for the December Geminid shower.”
“A dark, moonless night also highlights the Bull – the radiant point for the North Taurid meteors – in all his starlit majesty. Taurus contains many noticeable stars – plus two star clusters – and is pretty easy to spot. The Bull appears over the eastern horizon by around 8 p.m. The Bull’s face consists of a V-shaped star cluster called the Hyades cluster. The Bull’s fiery red eye – the star Aldebaran – is not part of the Hyades. This ruddy star lies in the same direction, though at only about half the distance to the Hyades cluster. The star Elnath marks the tip of the Bull’s northern horn. And the Pleiades star cluster marks the Bull’s shoulder.”
“The Bull climbs upward throughout the evening hours, to soar to his highest point for the night around 1 a.m. That’s why the meteors are best around then. Meteor showers are often best when their radiant point is highest in the sky.”
“Taurus descends westward throughout the morning hours, and is found over the western horizon by daybreak. Unlike some meteor showers, the North Taurids don’t exhibit a sharp peak, so comparable meteor rates might be in store for the next several days.”
Some background on the Taurids:
“The Taurids are an annual meteor shower associated with the comet Encke. They are named after their radiant point in the constellation Taurus, where they are seen to come from in the sky. Because of their occurrence in late October and early November, they are also called Halloween fireballs.”
“The Taurids are believed to be remnants of a much larger comet, which has disintegrated over the past 20,000 to 30,000 years, breaking into several pieces and releasing material by normal cometary activity or perhaps occasionally by close encounters with the tidal force of Earth or other planets. In total, this stream of matter is the largest in the inner solar system. Since the meteor stream is rather spread out in space, Earth takes several weeks to pass through it, causing an extended period of meteor activity, compared with the much smaller periods of activity in other showers. The Taurids are also made up of weightier material, pebbles instead of dust grains.”
“Typically, Taurids appear at a rate of about 5 per hour, moving slowly across the sky at about 17 miles per second, or 65,000 miles per hour. If larger than a pebble, these meteors may become bolides as bright as the moon and leave behind smoke trails. Due to the gravitational perturbations of planets, especially Jupiter, the Taurids have spread out over time, allowing separate segments labeled the Northern Taurids and Southern Taurids to become observable. Essentially these are two cross sections of a single, broad, continuous stream in space. The Beta Taurids, encountered by the Earth in June/July are also a cross section of the stream. Beta Taurids approach from the Earth’s daytime side; so cannot be observed visually in the way the Northern and Southern Taurids of October/November can. Astronomers Duncan Steel and Bill Napier even suggest the Beta Taurids could be the cause of the 1908 Tunguska event.”
“The Taurid stream has a cycle of activity that peaks roughly every 2500 to 3000 years, when the core of the stream passes nearer to Earth and produces more intense showers. In fact, because of the separate ‘branches’ (night-time in one part of the year and daytime in another; and Northern/Southern in each case) there are two (possibly overlapping) peaks separated by a few centuries, every 3000 years. Some astronomers note that dates for megalith structures such as Stonehenge are associated with these peaks. The next peak is expected around 3000 AD.”
Image Credits: EarthSky; Meteors via Wikimedia Commons