Taurid meteors may produce dazzling 'fireballs'
By Rachel Courtland (Image: Jimmy Westlake) Sky watchers could catch a dazzling treat this week, with the peak of what is expected to be an unusually good Taurid meteor shower. Meteors are bits of dust or rock that plunge into Earth’s atmosphere at high speed, producing a glowing trail as they heat up gas particles. The Taurid meteors originate in a stream of cometary debris that encircles the Sun. The debris was probably shed by a large, ancient comet that disintegrated to create the Taurid stream, as well as an existing comet called 2P/Encke. The Earth began cutting across the broad dust trail in October, but it will cross the densest parts of the stream on 5 and 12 November. The best view of the Taurids is expected to fall on the night of 5 November, since the second peak may be obscured by an almost-full Moon. The Taurids do not produce as many meteors as the Leonid or Perseid showers. But this year, the shower might be especially good because the Earth might cut across a cluster, or ‘swarm’, of meteoroids in the stream. The swarm, which probably coalesced into a cluster due to gravitational tugs from Jupiter, orbits the Sun every 3.4 years. That means the Earth does not intersect it every year. This year, however, our planet will make a glancing pass through the group. “It should just be within what we think is the extent of the swarm,” says David Asher of Armagh Observatory in Ireland. That could yield 20 or so Taurid meteors that streak across the sky each hour, including a handful of particularly large meteors that create bright ‘fireballs’. The most recent bright Taurid shower, in 2005, produced some fireballs that were reported to be brighter than Venus. The best views of the fireballs will be in the Northern Hemisphere, but southern viewers could also get 3 to 5 hours of viewing time around midnight on Wednesday, when the constellation Taurus is above the horizon. The Taurid meteors are named after the constellation Taurus, because their paths can be traced back to that area of sky. But the meteors should be visible across most of the sky. NASA’s CONTOUR spacecraft was set to rendezvous with Comet Encke in 2003. But the spacecraft was lost in 2002, after an engine firing that seemed to break it in two. Comets and Asteroids – Learn more in our special report. More on these topics: