This is the time of year for the Taurid meteor shower. There are actually two Taurids, the North Taurids and the South Taurids, which peak about a week apart. Both are associated with material shed by Comet 2P/Encke. Comet Encke is a bit different from may comets in that it was not named for the person who discovered it (Pierre Mechain, a colleague of Charles Messier), but rather after the person who computed its orbit (Johann Encke), thus being able to predict when it would return. Comet Encke is likely an ancient comet, having made myriads of orbits about the Sun. Comet Encke likely formed far from the Sun and on a pass into the inner Solar System came too close to Jupiter and that planet’s gravity radically altered its orbit into what we see today. At present, it takes about 3.3 years to orbit the Sun in an orbit that ranges from as close as 0.33 AU to the Sun (closer than Mercury!) out to a distance of 4.1 AU from the Sun (almost as far as Jupiter). Though Comet Encke passes quite close to Earth now and then, it is generally not all that impressive. That is typical of comets that have been caught near the Sun. Over time, they lose most of their volatiles and become more asteroid-like. The asteroid 3200 Phaethon offers a possible glimpse of Comet Encke’s future. But, until then, Comet Encke continues to lose material into space as it goes around the Sun, particularly when it gets close to the Sun.
The material that comets lose is gas and dust. The dust and small rocks shed continue to orbit the Sun in orbits very near to that of the parent comet. For comets whose orbits cross or come very near to that of Earth, then the particles sometimes run into Earth. They typically are small and burn up in the atmosphere. But, when that happens, we inhabitants of Earth see meteors. Since these swarms of particles (meteoroid swarms) are composed of particles with very similar orbits, then observers see a number of meteors shooting away from a particular patch of the sky. We call this a meteor shower. The spot in the sky where the meteors appear to shoot from is called the radiant of the meteor shower. Most meteor showers are named from the place in the sky where the radiant is found. For examples, August’s Perseids are so named because the meteors appear to come from Perseus. October’s Orionids appear to radiate from Orion, and December’s Geminids appear to radiate from Gemini. This month, there are two meteoroid streams associated with Comet Encke that appear to radiate from Taurus, so they are the Taurids. One appears to radiate from a more northern part of Taurus than the other, so it is the Northern Taurids, and the other meteors are the Southern Taurids. The Southern Taurids are peaking now, and the Northern Taurids peak in one week. But, these swarms are not so narrow that the meteor shower happens only a short period of time. The meteoroids have spread out, so it takes the Earth a couple weeks to pass through them, so you’ll typically see meteors shooting away from Taurus for the first couple weeks of November. At the top of the page, I created a diagram using the freeware Stellarium software showing the approximate radiant for the Southern Taurids.
Typically, the Taurids at best produce a meteor every five minutes or so, after midnight for most Northern Hemisphere observers who have good skies (clear and away from city lights). However, activity with the Taurids tends to follow the comet. So, every now and then, Earth passes through a swarm of material shed by the comet fairly recently. That may happen this year, and if so it means that there may be more meteors than normal, and many of them may be due to bigger meteoroids than normal. Under those circumstances, there are often a number of fireballs, or unusually bright meteors, that can be seen even from the city. We don’t really know whether this will be a swarm year or not. Meteor showers are about as tough to predict as weather. So, we won’t know if there will be a lot of activity until after it has already happened, so you might as well go out and take a look if you get the chance. The American Meteor Society has a guide for observing meteors if you are interested. Observing meteors is really easy. You do not need any special equipment. All that you need to do is to find a reasonably dark site where you can see the sky and look up. In general, for most meteor showers, the peak activity is after local midnight, until dawn. But, this shower should start picking up activity a bit before midnight. I’d expect it to be better, though, after local midnight.