Northern Taurid fireballs, meteors can be seen in the sky all November long

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Friday, November 11, 2022

The Taurid "swarm" is still going strong this month, with bright meteors known as fireballs visible across the world in the night sky.

The Southern Taurids peaked last week, with sightings of fireballs lasting throughout the first week of November, but it's not over yet. The Taurid meteor shower is composed of two streams, and the Northern Taurids are predicted to peak on Saturday, according to EarthSky.

"The Taurids only peak at maybe five meteors per hour, but there's always a chance that one of those five might be a fireball, which is brighter than any star or planet in the sky," said Robert Lunsford, the fireball report coordinator for the American Meteor Society. "Only the sun and the moon are brighter than the normal fireballs, so they are quite spectacular when you see one."

The Southern Taurids run from about September 23 to November 12, while the Northern Taurids are active from about October 13 to December 2. When the two showers are active simultaneously, there can be an increase in fireballs, especially during a Taurid swarm year such as this one.

The showers reach their respective peaks at points where Earth is closest to the center of each stream. The swarm results when Jupiter is close enough to pull on the streams with its gravity, causing debris to condense and creating a spike in fireballs. The last time this happened was in 2015, and before then in 2008, creating a seven-year repetition that the meteor society predicted would happen again for 2022.

"It's a very interesting shower that produces a lot of fireballs," said Mike Hankey, the American Meteor Society's operations manager and creator of its fireball tracking program. "It's always been known for fireballs, but we can definitely see an uptick in the data every day this month. There has been a lot of fireballs already."

Origin of the Taurids

The Taurids radiate from the direction of the Taurus constellation, although it's best not to look in that area since the meteors' trails last for the shortest period then. Fireballs will be seen all over the sky, and they won't be disturbed by the waning of the bright November 8 full moon either since they can outshine most elements of the night sky.

The Southern and Northern Taurids both derive from components of Comet Encke, which has the shortest orbit around the sun of any major comet in our solar system at a little more than three years. Every time Encke passes Earth in its orbit, it leaves a new trail of debris, making it a large producer of meteoroids. The strain is so large it takes our planet several weeks to pass through the meteor shower.

Comet Encke will return in October 2023.

Seeing a fireball

Taurid meteors tend to move slowly but sometimes are very bright, depending on their size. Meteors larger than a meter (3.3 feet) across tend to move the slowest and shine the brightest, according to NASA. Fireballs can be seen moving across the sky for a few seconds, whereas most meteors are visible only for a millisecond. The fireballs are often described as colorful, either red, orange or yellow.

"You won't always see fireballs, but there are meteors every night of the year," Lunsford said. "It's something you can do inexpensively. You don't even need a telescope; just your eyes are perfect."

Other space events this year

There are three more meteor showers you can see in the remainder of 2022, according to EarthSky's 2022 meteor shower guide. Here are the showers and their predicted peaks:

November 18: Leonids

December 14: Geminids

December 22: Ursids

There is one more full moon on the The Old Farmer's Almanac calendar for 2022: the cold moon on December 7.