During the month of November, we will be treated to 3 separate meteor showers: the Leonids, which happen in late November, and the two showers named after the constellation Taurus—the North Taurids and the South Taurids. These meteor showers are caused by the dust of the comet Encke (pronounced “EN-key”), credited to Johann Franz Encke, an 18th-century German astronomer.*
Why Are They Called the Taurids?
The Taurids are named for the constellation Taurus because that is where they appear to come from in the sky, the point known as the “radiant.” As can be expected, the radiant point for the Southern Taurids, which last from about September 10 to November 20 (and peak during the late evening/early morning hours of November 2-4th, is found in southern Taurus, while the Northern Taurids, which last from about October 20th to December 10th (and peak in the wee hours of November 12–13), radiate from the northern part of the constellation.
What Are Meteor Showers, Exactly?
To understand meteor showers a bit better here’s a simple explanation: As a comet travels through space, it releases a trail of dusty material, essentially, a “river of rubble.” So even though the comet itself may be far from the Earth, every time the Earth sweeps across that comet orbit (which in the case of the Taurids, it does every November), it encounters that rubble river again. And when those tiny bits ejected by the comet ram into our atmosphere, they create the “shooting star” effect.
The “river of rubble,” which we know more familiarly as “meteors,” or “shooting stars” are made up of metallic or stony particles that become visible when they plunge through our atmosphere. Though 100 million or more strike our atmosphere every 24 hours, those particles that are larger than dust are usually vaporized long before they can ever get close to the Earth’s surface. The average meteor is estimated to weigh only 0.0005 ounces.
How Can You see the Taurids?
You actually don’t need to locate Taurus in the night sky to see the Taurids. The Taurids are unusual in that as many meteors can be seen in the evening as in the morning since the shower’s radiant (in the constellation Taurus) is fairly high in the sky all night and crosses the meridian (high toward the southern part of the sky) about an hour before midnight. They are the slowest of any of the major annual showers, encountering the Earth at only 17 miles per second. They are noted for their many brightly colored meteors. Although the dominant color is yellow, many orange, green, red and blue fireballs have been recorded.
* Astronomer Joe Rao tells us, “Encke did not discover the comet; it was actually discovered several times by other observers, but Encke was able to “tie together” those apparitions and prove that all those comets were actually one in the same. It was only the second comet to have its orbit accurately determined (the first was Halley’s), so to honor this achievement Encke was honored by having the comet named for him. Interestingly, however, Encke always referred to the comet as “Pons” (one of the observers who previously discovered it). Encke spent about 40 years of his life checking and refining the orbit of his comet, yet up till the time he died, he never took the time to look at it through a telescope. A desk man to the end!”