What’s Up: Taurid Meteor Shower and Comet Encke

Oct 29, 2021 | Comets, Daily Space, Meteor Showers, Sky Watching

What’s Up: Taurid Meteor Shower and Comet Encke
IMAGE: The Taurid meteors consist of 2 streams, the South Taurid meteors and North Taurid meteors. Both streams appear to originate from the constellation Taurus the Bull. You might see South or North Taurids throughout October and into November. CREDIT: EarthSky.org

This week in What’s Up is another meteor shower, the Taurids. The Taurids are better than most meteor showers, lasting for months compared to the weeks of the Orionids and Draconids we’ve previously talked about.

There are two different Taurid radiants, those apparent points in the sky where the meteors come from; these are the Northern and Southern Taurids. The Southern Taurids became visible early last month and will continue into next month. The Northern Taurids became visible last week, October 20, and will continue to be visible until early December. Don’t worry, the radiants for both streams are fairly close together, around the constellation Taurus that gives them their names.

Taurus is easy to find, with the bright red star Aldebaran straight in the middle of the constellation. Right next to the Taurus constellation is the incredible open cluster the Pleiades, Messier 45. The radiant for the Northern Taurids is in this open cluster. The Southern Taurids are just below the Pleiades in a line to the south.

Now our usual advice on how to see a meteor shower: with the unaided eye, the widest field of view you can get. Be sure to let your eyes get well adjusted to the dark; don’t use a planetarium app on your phone. Even if it has a red light function the brightness will impact your dark adaption.You can download a map from a link at our website and print it out to bring with you to the field. Use a proper red light flashlight to see the map when you’re out. You can get one from Amazon using our affiliate link so we can benefit as well. A zero gravity chair or hammock may also be helpful for remaining comfortable for hours of looking for meteors.

If you want to try to take pictures of this meteor shower the best way to do that is to use an interchangeable lens camera with a wide angle lens, at least 20mm, wider if possible. Erik likes the new Canon RF 16mm f/2.8 lens which he rented this past week to try out.. And he apologizes for the clouds. This camera is inexpensive, and the image quality is good for its low price. Note: We are not sponsored by Canon, but we could be.

We discussed in last week’s Whats Up segment some tips for landscape astrophotography, but here’s a refresher on the basics: mount your camera on a tripod and take long exposures using bulb mode with a remote shutter release cable (but not an app on your phone because you want to preserve your night vision) and you might capture a few meteors.

IMAGE: NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft imaged comet 2P/Encke during its closest approach of the planet Mercury at 22:56 UTC on November 17. CREDIT: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington/Southwest Research Institute

The meteor stream that produces the Taurid showers is Comet 2P/Encke. Comet Encke was discovered by french astronomer Pierre Mechain in 1786 and was subsequently observed by other astronomers in the years after. It wasn’t named after any of them, however. It wasn’t until 1818 that astronomer Johann Encke calculated that the comet all of these people had seen before was in fact the same object, and so he got the comet named after himself.

Scientists have continued to analyze the comet and its effects on the Earth. A 2019 paper in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society with first author W.M Napier tied debris coming from the comet, or a predecessor comet, to a catastrophic series of impacts about 12,000 years ago in the Younger Dryas Period. The impacts caused hemisphere-wide wildfires, a 1,300-year-long ice age, disrupted human development, and caused the extinction of “35 genera of North American mammals”.

In the paper, evidence for cometary impacts in the northern and southern hemispheres is given, including platinum-rich dust and “glassy microspherules” which can come from impact events, along with charcoal indicating large fires. At the same point in the geologic record is evidence of mass extinction in both hemispheres. The paper explains that the impacts came from a large comet that broke up 20,000 years ago, forming many comets and debris including 2P/Encke, the group being called the “Tauroid Complex”.

The paper goes on to mathematically demonstrate that a comet like Encke could have formed this way through a series of fragmenting events, and that the impact of fragments and dust from Encke on the Earth could have caused the changes observed in the geologic record. Particularly, the paper explains that rapid temperature changes in other time periods were caused by impacts and the dust spread by them sticking around in the atmosphere for many years and cooling the Earth, by 2-6 degrees C in the case of the Younger Dryas Period cooling. Comet Encke has produced more than pretty streaks in the sky, it seems.

Remember, go outside and look up.

More Information

Taurid meteors fly, now through December (EarthSky.org)

2P/Encke (NASA)

The hazard from fragmenting comets,” W M Napier, 2019 June 28, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society


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