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The Northern part of the Taurid meteor shower peaks this year on the night of November 12th. Although the Zenith hourly rate (ZHR) or the number of meteors that can be seen per hour under ideal conditions is low, the Northern Taurids often produces fireballs that are a spectacular sight as they slowly pass by.

The source of this very old stream is comet Encke (2P/Encke), which happens to reach perihelion this year on November 21st. Unfortunately a 70% lit waxing gibbous Moon somewhat interferes with this years shower.

Parent Comet and Radiant

The Taurids have long been identified as an old meteor stream, with the first recorded observations made as far back as 1869. Although frequently seen during the remainder of the 19th century, it was not until 1918 that it was realised that a new meteor shower had been found. The Taurids are a little unusual in that they now have two separate shower radians caused by the gravitational effect of the planets, especially Jupiter. Although originating from the same parent comet, overtime they spread out to form two individual meteor showers, now known as the Northern Taurids (NTA) and the Southern Taurids (STA). Both Taurids have low Zenith hourly rates (ZHR), with the Southern Taurids peaking a week before the Northern Taurids. Despite the low numbers it's worth looking out for them as they often produce spectacular fireballs! In fact, when bright Taurids come, authorities are usually in for a busy night from a flurry of UFO reports!

The meteors are associated with periodic comet Encke (2P/Encke), which orbits the Sun once every 3.3 years - the shortest period of any known comet. Comet Encke and the Taurids are believed to be remnants of a much larger comet, which has disintegrated over the past 20,000 to 30,000 years.

Comet Encke in January 1994 (Jim Scotti/JPL)

The radiant for the Northern Taurids is large and centred at +3h 52m and +22 degrees. This part of the sky is located in the northwest section of the Taurus and only 3 degrees to the southeast of the famous naked eye open cluster, M45 or the Pleiades. Northern hemisphere observers are best placed to spot the meteors although they can be seen from locations much further south as well. As with all meteor showers the best time to look is after midnight.

Northern Taurids Radiant and Star Chart

Northern Taurids Radiant and Star Chart - pdf format

What to expect

As stated, the ZHR for the Northern Taurids is low at only 5 per hour, although it can be a slightly higher. When the meteors from the Northern Taurids strike the atmosphere they do so at a relatively slow velocity of 30km/sec (67,500 km/hour or 42,000 miles/hour). Often many bright fireballs are visible that can be seen moving slowly across the night sky leaving spectacular bright trails in their wake. Sadly, the Moon will wash out all but the brightest meteors, particularly during the first half of the night.

As with all meteor showers it is best not to look directly at the radiant itself; the meteors can appear many degrees away from it in and even in a completely different area of the sky. To be certain you have seen a Northern Taurid, trace back the meteor trail and it should go all the way back to the radiant.

When observing scan the general region of the sky around the radiant, ideally when lying down on a deck chair or something similar.

Northern Taurids Data Table

Meteor shower nameNorthern Taurids
Meteor shower abbreviationNTA
Radiant constellationTaurus
ActivityOctober 20th -> December 10th
Peak DateNovember 12th
RA (J2000)+03h 52m
DEC (J2000)+22d
Speed (km/s)29
ZHR 5
RatingBright
Parent body2P/Encke
NotesTaurids have now spread out over time to become the Northern Taurids (NAT) and Southern Taurids (STA)

Comet 2P/Encke Data Table (at epoch August 21, 2012)

Name2P/Encke
TypeComet
ClassificationEncke-type comet (NEO)
DiscovererPierre M├ęchain, Johann Franz Encke first recognised the periodicity
Discovery date1786 (orbit computed by Encke in 1819)
Aphelion (AU)4.09236
Perihelion (AU)0.33625
Semi-major axis (AU) 2.21430
Eccentricity0.84815
Orbital period (years)3.29513
Inclination (degrees) 11.7773
Longitude of ascending node (degrees)334.572
Last perihelion August 6th, 2010
Next perihelion November 21st, 2013
NotesComet Encke has the shortest orbital period of any known comet