Science & Technology

The Taurids and the Leonids Are Autumn's Meteor Shower Double Feature

In the United States, fireworks shows really only come around once a year on the Fourth of July. But if you pledge allegiance to the sky instead, you'll get to watch an astonishing display every time one of the planet's annual meteor showers comes around. If you love to see the sky alight with falling stars, then November is extra special. It's the double-feature of meteor showers, with both the Leonids and the Taurids setting the night on fire throughout the month.

Related: The 2009 Taurid Meteor Shower Surprises Californians

First Up: The Taurids

The Taurids make a great opening act for November's meteor showers. They're bright and memorable, but they come at a slow enough pace that they won't outshine the closers. Like most annual meteor showers, the Taurids are the debris left in the wake of a comet on its orbit around the Sun. In this case, it's Encke, a giant ball of ice with an incredibly short period for a comet. It loops back around to the Sun every 3.3 years. Since it comes to our neighborhood so frequently, Encke is also one of the comets that we know the most about, and it's revealed a lot about how other comets work as well.

Encke isn't visiting us this year, but tiny chunks of it from previous years probably will. Quite literally, too — while most meteors that we see sparking across the sky will burn up by the time they hit the surface, those left behind by Encke are believed to be large enough to survive the trip. They won't be car-crushingly huge, only a couple of ounces. Still, it will be worth it to keep your eyes peeled. None of these fragments have been discovered yet, but a NASA meteor expert told that such a rock would be a "holy grail of meteorites."

The peak of the northern Taurids is going to be visible around November 11, and the southern Taurids around the 5th. They'll be falling nearly all month long, so make sure you're keeping your eyes on the skies. At their peak, the Taurids come at a pace of only about six per hour, but their size makes them bright enough to really stand out, as long as you're patient enough to wait. A word to the wise: Although they are called the Taurids because they appear to emerge from the constellation Taurus, you'll have more luck spotting them if you look outside of that region of the sky — the ones that actually appear in the constellation will be coming directly at the planet and thus will have the shortest, hardest-to-spot tails.

The Closing Act: The Leonids

The Leonids hit their peak about a week after the Taurids, on November 17 and 18. When that happens, you can expect shooting stars at a rate of about 15 per hour. Some years, they even produce bonafide meteor storms, but no such spectacle is expected in 2018. Those events occur in roughly 33-year intervals, with the last one spotted over Asia and Australia in 2001. A truly astonishing one occurred over North America in 1966, however, when the Earth passed into a dense cloud that showered California in roughly 50 meteors per second. To spot this year's much more relaxed shower, you'll want to get up early enough to see the sky an hour before dawn. Otherwise, the waxing gibbous moon might get in your way.

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Written by Reuben Westmaas October 31, 2018

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