Amateur astronomers and skywatchers need to have their eyes on the heavens next week as the Taurid meteor shower could result in some impressive fireballs. Fireballs are a technical term for extremely bright meteors streaking through the atmosphere. For those unfamiliar, the Taurids are split into the Northern Taurids and the Southern Taurids.
Both are the result of debris left behind by a comet called Encke. The debris stream left behind by the meteor contains larger pieces of debris than some other debris trails left behind by comets. While the Taurids don’t produce as many meteors as other meteor showers, the size of the debris means that Taurids do often create larger fireballs.
The Taurids first appeared in the nighttime sky in late October and will continue to light the night sky through November 27. The peak is typically between November 5 and November 12. Prime viewing time for the meteor shower is late in the night and into the early dawn. The ideal time to look for fireballs would be just after midnight.
As with any astronomical viewing, the best bet for ideal views is somewhere away from bright lights. However, the Taurids are known to produce fireballs bright enough to be seen within a city. For those unfamiliar with the comet that created the debris trail resulting in the Taurids, Encke is a periodic comet. It orbits the sun every 3.3 years, which is the shortest orbital period for a reasonably bright comet.
The comet doesn’t reflect much of the light that hits it, but it does have a large coma and tail that makes it more visible during its closest approach to the sun. Encke has a nucleus about 4.8 kilometers in diameter. It was first discovered in 1786 but astronomers didn’t know it was a periodic comet until 1819.