Taurid meteor shower sends fireballs shooting across the sky
Tuesday, November 3, 2015, 5:47 PM - Brilliant fireballs flashing over Poland, Thailand, the UK and the United States are signalling the start of the annual Taurid meteor shower, and it appears to be shaping up as a memorable one this year!
Every year, from the end of October through until the beginning of December, the northern Taurid meteor shower sends flashes of light across the sky, as Earth sweeps up bits of ice and rock as it passes through a wide stream of debris left behind by the passage of a comet through the inner solar system. As the tiny grains of dust and ice plunge into Earth's atmosphere travelling at speeds of around 100,000 kph, they compress the air in their path, heating it up to glowing hot temperatures and producing bright meteor trails through the night sky.
The first indication of the return of these Halloween fireballs came on Saturday night, appropriately, as a fireball flashed over central Poland, as seen in this dashcam video posted on YouTube.
Since then, other sightings have surfaced, such as this one from the UK Meteor Observation Network.
On November 2, this fireball was recorded over Bangkok, Thailand (also seen in the video at the top of the page).
There have been further reports of fireball sightings over the US Northeast, on November 1, at just after 5 p.m. EST. No images or video of the event have surfaced as of yet, however the American Meteor Society's "heat map" shows where it was observed from.
AMS heat map for Fireball Event 2891-2015, at 5:02 p.m. EST on Nov 1, 2015. Credit: American Meteor Society
Many eyewitnesses reported seeing the meteoroid break up as it blazed across the sky, so it was very likely similar to what was seen in the above three videos.
Where do the Taurids come from?
The Taurids are not one of the strongest meteor showers of the year. The debris stream is apparently so old, and thus so spread out by the motions of the planets, that it actually has actually resolved into two different meteor showers now - the northern Taurids and the southern Taurids - and each only produces a handful of meteors per hour. Due to the exceptional size of this debris stream, astronomers have named it the Taurid meteoroid complex.
This meteor shower is actually quite famous for the fireballs it produces around this time of year. These exceptionally bright meteors occur when larger pieces of debris, up to the size of a small pebble, flash through the atmosphere, some lighting up brighter than the moon. This yearly occurrence has been named the "Halloween fireballs," and they tend to start up at the end of October and continue through until around the 10th of November.
Both Taurid meteor showers have long been associated with Comet 2P/Encke, which orbits the Sun every 3.3 years. More recently, though, the northern Taurids have been linked with an asteroid by the name of 2004 TG10.
However, given the similarities in the orbits of these two objects, it's quite possible that 2014 TG10 is a large fragment of 2P/Encke that separated from the comet at some point in the past.
Overlay of 2P/Encke and 2004 TG10's orbits, with relative positions of the objects on Nov 3, 2015. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Fireball meteor swarm?
Although the Taurids are fairly reliable for delivering fireballs at this time of year, periodically, they produce a much more spectacular show, as Earth encounters a portion of the stream with more of these larger pieces of debris than usual. According to research by astrophysicist Victor Clube and astronomer David Asher, who studied the history of this swarm in detail, Earth encounters the same portion of this swarm roughly every 61 years. As they wrote in their study: "there was a good swarm encounter in 1954; so there should be one in 2015."
So, do these sightings herald the start of this recurring "fireball swarm" from the Taurids? We still have at least another week to find out, but things are looking pretty good so far. With such a strong and visible start to the Taurid fireballs, here's hoping that the predictions for this year come true.