Rocky Raybell took this stunning double-whammy of an image—a Taurid fireball blasting across a backdrop of Northern Lights—on November 3, 2015, from a road overlooking the San Poil River and Colville Reservation in Washington state.
Image credit: Rocky Raybell via Flickr // CC BY 2.0
When you look up at the night sky tonight, November 4, do not panic. You are not seeing a celestial harbinger of the election on Tuesday. (Probably.) Rather, you are witnessing the sustained bombardment of the planet Earth by the remnants of the comet Encke. The remnants vary in size from dust particles to pebbles, but at 65,000 miles per hour, they create a beautiful glow.
Around midnight, the Southern Taurid meteor shower will peak, and sky watchers can expect to see a few meteors per hour. Quantity isn't what the Taurids are known for, however. What you're looking for tonight is quality. The Taurids are all about their breathtaking fireballs: bright, powerful shooting stars slicing across the night sky.
It's not guaranteed to happen―you need the cooperation of the sky, the ground, and cometary debris. The sky needs to be free of clouds. The ground needs to be free of light (as always, get out of the city). The debris field was created over a span of tens of thousands of years, so those cards are already shuffled, and what happens, happens.
Also―and I don't want to worry you too much―there might be an explosion with the force of an atomic bomb that is capable of leveling hundreds of square miles of forest. Definitely be on the lookout for that: if you survive, your pictures will be the toast of Instagram.
THE POSSIBLE TAURID-TUNGUSKA CONNECTION
OK, that's hyperbole. You'll never be able to purloin Taylor Swift's adoring Instagram acolytes. And no, there will almost certainly be no catastrophic explosion. But a little more than a century ago, there was, and it might be related to the source comet of the Taurids.
In 1908, a mysterious blast hit an area in Russia near a stretch of the Stony Tunguska River. Its exact cause is still unknown. It might have been an asteroid. It might have been a small black hole that collided with the Earth. (Really!) It might have been a natural gas explosion. Or it might have been a very large fireball that disintegrated in the air, releasing a tremendous amount of thermal energy. One possible culprit for the fireball is the comet Encke. The explosion even corresponds with the Beta Taurid meteor shower in the summer, whose debris was produced by the same comet as the Taurids tonight.
The good news is that if the skies do unleash an apocalyptic fusillade this evening, it won’t even be the worst thing to happen in 2016.
THE TAURIDS COMPLEX
The Taurids consist of two streams: the Southern Taurids―which are reaching a crescendo this weekend―and the Northern Taurids, which peak on November 11. Collectively, they are called the Taurids Complex. And though they’re not dense with activity like the Geminid meteor shower will be next month, assuming you’ve escaped light pollution on the ground, the light from the sky above is doing its part to help. The Moon is waxing crescent and just a shade over a sliver, meaning its light won’t interfere.
An hour or so before midnight, find your way to a clownless field somewhere, lay out a blanket, and let your eyes adjust. (Keep your phone off.) The big show starts around midnight and ends at dawn. If you can’t get out to see them, don’t worry―the Taurids will be around for a bit longer, and when one of their bright meteors decides to make an appearance, you’ll definitely notice.