There is a new moon on November 15! And, if the sky is clear over the next week or so, the dark sky should make for good conditions to see falling stars.
The Northern Taurids Meteor Shower began on October 20 and runs until December 10. It is not one of the more well-known meteor showers, producing maybe 5-10 meteors per hour. It peaked on the evening of the 11th and early morning hours of the 12th, but there is still more to see. And the Northern Taurids are known to occasionally produce some unusually showy displays.
Not only can we see the Northern Taurids, but the Leonids Meteor Shower has already started as well and will continue through the 30th. The Leonids is considered by many to be an average shower, with maybe 15 or so meteors per hour during the peak viewing period. This year the peak will occur on the evening of the 16th and early morning of the 17th. Like the Northern Taurids, the sky should be dark enough to make for a good show.
With the exception of at least one meteor shower caused by particles of an asteroid, meteor showers are produced by debris from comets. You may recall that comets are mixtures of ice, rock, and dust. They are like snowy dirtballs or dirty snowballs a few miles in diameter. When comets pass near the sun, the heat causes the comets to shed ice and particles. These mostly sand-sized pieces of ice and rock create a “debris field” in outer space. When the earth passes through these debris fields, the pieces collide with the atmosphere and become glowing hot creating what we call “falling stars,” or “shooting stars!”
Of course, through much of human history they were thought to be something completely different. Some cultures viewed falling stars as portending good, others a portent of doom. Some thought they were the souls of babies born coming to earth from heaven, or perhaps the light of a falling star was the extinguishing of a human life. Seeing a falling star in some cultures meant you were going to die! Others would promptly bring the children in the house and sprinkle them with holy water upon seeing a falling star.
We now know we have little to fear from meteor and seeing them is always a treat. So, take some time over the next couple weeks to enjoy the show.