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The first branch of the Taurid meteor shower will reach its peak this weekend, providing an exciting opportunity for patient sky watchers.
The Southern Taurid meteor has been burning brightly in the night sky since late September, but its peak — expected at 8:47 p.m. ET Sunday — is when people will have the best chance to catch a glimpse, according to the American Meteor Society.
Although the Southern Taurids typically have a frequency of only five meteors per hour, the shower is known to be rich in fireballs, the name of a meteor that appears brighter than Venus, according to NASA. Venus is the second brightest object in the night sky after the moon.
“Meteors are a part of the night sky that is out of the ordinary for people,” said Bill Cooke, who heads NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office. “You go outside, you see the stars, you see the moon, you see the planets — those are always there … but you don’t always see meteors.” Meteors are part of the night sky, and people are fascinated by that.”
Local weather conditions permitting, the best time to go out to watch a meteor will be after midnight in any time zone — but be prepared to stay a while if you’re determined to see one, Cooke said. Until now, NASA’s meteor cameras have captured about one or two Taurids a night, he said.
At the peak of the shower, the moon will be about 44% full, according to the American Meteor Society. That level of moonlight can cause interference when viewing light meteors, but since the Taurids tend to be very bright, the moon probably won’t interfere, Cooke said.
“You have to look away from the moon but there’s no choice – just try to get as much sky as you can,” advises Cooke. “And use your eyes. You don’t want to use a telescope to see a meteor shower – it’s too small (of space) to see.”
Most meteor showers have meteoroids that are only millimeters long, Cooke said, but the Taurids can have meteoroids up to an impressive 1 meter long (three feet), making them appear very bright when they burn up in Earth’s atmosphere.
Even with their large size, most space rocks won’t fall to Earth, but if they do, the resulting meteorites — the name of the meteoroid that makes it to the ground — will break up into smaller pieces and won’t be big enough to cause any damage, Cooke said.
The Southern Taurids originate from Comet Encke, which orbits the sun on the shortest path of any known comet in the solar system, according to NASA. Encke’s orbital period is about 3.3 years, and the comet was last seen on Earth on October 22, when it was at its closest point, or closest to the sun.
During its journey, the comet leaves a trail of debris behind that can be seen as the Southern Taurid meteor shower when Earth’s orbit crosses its path. Although the Southern Taurid comet was just around the corner, the shower is expected to produce lower rates this year.
Both Taurid showers see higher than normal rates in 2022. This phenomenon, known as the Taurid stream, was caused by Jupiter’s gravity concentrating debris in front of Earth’s path. Scientists predict that the next mass event will occur in 2025, Cooke said.
Although prices are lower this year, there is always a chance to be surprised.
“I never said no, because the unexpected always happens,” said Cooke. “Last year was a good year for the Taurids, 2023 and 2024, not so much.”
Meteors from the Southern Taurids are expected to burn in the sky until the end of the shower on December 8, according to the American Meteor Society. Currently, the meteor shower overlaps with the Northern Taurids, which have been active since mid-October but will not reach next week on Sunday, November 12.
The rest of the meteor shower peaks in 2023
If watching the Taurids’ peak activity makes you yearn to see more, several other meteor showers are still on the horizon this year. Here are the remaining meteor events that peak in 2023:
● Leonids: November 17-18
● Geminids: December 13-14
● Ursids: December 21-22
There are two full moons left in 2023, according to the Farmers’ Almanac:
● November 27: Beaver Month
● December 26: Cold month