Taurid meteor shower: Winter fireballs
The Taurid meteor shower is an annual meteor shower that occurs every November in the Northern Hemisphere. The Taurids put on a rather modest show, especially when compared with August’s Perseid meteor shower or December’s Geminid meteors. At peak viewing times during the Taurid meteor shower you may be able to see about a half-dozen shooting stars per hour, at best. Otherwise, you may not even notice the quiet star show above your head.
But the Taurid meteor shower is special in its own right, as this show is known for occasionally producing fireballs.
A typical meteor is produced when a piece of space dust, perhaps the size of a lentil or a coffee grain burns up in Earth’s atmosphere, and it zips across the sky so quickly it is literally gone in the blink of an eye. Fireballs, on the other hand, are produced when larger objects, between the size of a peanut and a grape, or even larger plunge through the atmosphere.
Fireballs travel much more slowly than normal meteors, appearing to almost skip across the sky, often flaring several times before fading away, according to NASA’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies. Some fireballs can be so bright they cast shadows, and leave behind a ghostly trail of smoke that twists and turns for several minutes before vanishing.
What causes the Taurid meteor Shower?
Meteor showers occur when Earth passes through a stream of space dust left behind by a comet, and in the Taurids’ case that comet is Comet 2P/Encke, a 1.5-mile-wide (2.4 kilometer) chunk of ice and dust that orbits the sun every 3.3 years, according to NASA.
Every time this comet rounds the sun it leaves fresh dust behind it, and if Earth passes through a particularly dense streamer or trail, we get to see more meteors and fireballs than usual. This happened in 2005 and 2015, suggesting a 10 year cycle of enhanced activity, according to a 2017 study published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. This pattern suggests that 2025 will be the next “enhanced” Taurid show, but fireballs can show up in any year.
How to watch the Taurid meteor shower
Meteor showers are naked eye astronomical events. Telescopes and binoculars — very useful for observing misty galaxies, glittering star clusters and the feathery tails of comets — are no good for watching shooting stars because they appear at random and move across the sky too quickly to follow.
Although you will be able to see some Taurids from your back garden, you’ll have a much better view if you can find somewhere dark, well away from the light pollution caused by streetlights and the bright lights that illuminate offices and other buildings all through the night.
Once you’ve found a dark sky site you’ll need to wait at least half an hour for your eyes to adapt to the darkness. Then you will just have to wait until you see your first meteor.
This NASA graphic shows the radiants of the Taurid meteor shower. (Image credit: NASA)
Watching a meteor shower — especially one with such low levels of activity as the Taurids — requires a lot of patience. Find a comfortable spot, wrap up in warm clothes and consider going with someone to keep you company while you wait. There may be long gaps of several minutes between meteor sightings.
The Taurid meteor shower gets its name from the way that its meteors all appear to come from the constellation of Taurus. To find Taurus, look east, toward the constellation of Orion the Hunter, shining low in the sky. Use Orion’s “belt” of three blue-white stars as a pointer and follow it to the upper right where you’ll see a “V” of stars lying on its side. This is the Hyades star cluster which represents the horns of Taurus, the bull. A little further along you’ll see a thumbnail-sized knot of stars that looks like a mini version of the Big Dipper. This is the Pleiades star cluster, and the Taurid meteors all appear to zip away from just beneath it.
When to watch the Taurids
This year, the Taurid shower will reach its peak overnight on Nov. 11-12, but you may be able to see a few meteors on the nights before and after the peak. This year’s peak coincides with a 55% illuminated moon, which will reduce the number of faint meteors visible, but won’t be bright enough to drown out the brighter fireballs.
Related: 2021 Full Moon Calendar