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The Taurids refer to a meteor shower associated with Encke’s comet, observable every year from mid-September to the end of November. Most common from late October to early November, meteors are sometimes referred to as “Halloween fireballs.” Although less impressive and less popular than their summer cousins, the Perseids, the Taurids can still trace some beautiful light trails in the autumn sky.
In reality, the Taurids – whose radiant is located, as their name suggests, in the constellation of Taurus – are composed of two distinct rains: the Southern Taurids, whose peak of activity is around the 4th or November 5, and the Northern Taurids, which peak between November 12 and 13. Both come from Encke’s comet — so named in honor of the German astronomer Johann Franz Encke, who determined its periodicity. It was a French astronomer, Pierre Méchain, who discovered it in 1786.
The Taurids are not among the most prolific meteor showers; they appear at the rate of about five per hour, even at their peak of activity. But this year could be an exception: the American Meteor Society points out that there is generally a noticeable increase in the activity of these fireballs every seven years. The last major Taurids shower was in 2015, so this year the show might be worth keeping an eye out for…
A meteor shower lasting more than two months
Encke’s comet is the periodic comet with the shortest period: it completes its orbit around the Sun in just 3.3 years. Both Encke and the Taurids are thought to be the remnants of a much larger comet, which disintegrated over the past 20,000 to 30,000 years, releasing the largest flux of material in the inner solar system. These fragments are however very scattered in space, which is why we can distinguish two sets of meteors (north and south) and why the Earth takes several weeks to cross them – which allows us to enjoy the spectacle much longer than in the case of other swarms.
The Taurids can be seen from mid-September until the end of November, whenever the constellation Taurus is above the horizon. The best time to look for Taurids is after midnight, when Taurus is high in the sky and the sky is dark and cloudless — avoiding moonlight, of course, which would dwarf the brightness of fainter meteors. As with any night sighting, it will take about 30 minutes for your eyes to adjust to the darkness.
To find Taurus, first look for the constellation of Orion, recognizable by the hourglass formed by the seven brightest stars that compose it (four stars form the vertices of a rectangle in the center of which are aligned three other stars quite close together, the “belt of Orion”); then look northeast of this constellation to find Aldebaran, the brightest star in the constellation Taurus.
When attempting to observe meteors, do not stare directly into Taurus, as meteors closer to the radiant form shorter trails and are harder to spot. Instead, cast your gaze around nearby constellations to maximize your chances of spotting the most spectacular shooting stars.
Ideal viewing conditions forecast for late October
The Southern Taurids are active from September 10 to November 20, while the Northern Taurids will be active from October 20 to December 10. This year, the end of October – when the two showers will overlap – could therefore be the best time to observe these meteors. Keep in mind that the October 25 new moon will provide ideal viewing conditions (hopefully the sky will be clear that day).
Taurids are generally larger than other meteors and move relatively slowly across the sky, at about 28 km/s (vs. 59 km/s for Perseids, for comparison), producing very long light trails; according to NASA, they can shine down to altitudes as low as 66 km. If they are rare, they therefore at least have the merit of “ensuring the show” at each of their appearances.
Note also that the rain of Orionids – the debris of Halley’s famous comet – also started a few days ago and will be active until November 7. It is usually possible to observe 10 to 20 shooting stars per hour. These will be much faster than the Taurids: their speed reaches 66 km/s. The peak of activity is scheduled for the night of October 21 to 22; that night, the Moon will be 21% full, says the American Meteor Society. The best time to observe them is when the constellation Orion is high in the sky, well after midnight or even in the wee hours of the morning.
Also not to be forgotten: the Leonids, from November 3 to December 2 (peak: November 17-18) and the Geminids, from November 19 to December 24 (peak: December 13-14). Recall that the Geminids are one of the most intense meteor showers of the year (with around 150 meteors per hour under ideal viewing conditions). ” This is the only major downpour that offers good activity before midnight, as the constellation Gemini is well placed from 10:00 p.m. “says the American Meteor Society.