November’s brightest comet – 168P/Hergenrother – continues to splinter. On Oct. 25, the Italian amateur astronomer team of Ernesto Guido, Nick Howes and Giovanni.Sostero were the first to photograph a fragment shed from the comet’s bright head or nucleus using the 79-inch Faulkes Telescope.
Deeper observations with the National Optical Astronomy Observatory’s huge 323-inch Gemini North telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii now show at least four chunks broken loose from the nucleus:
“We have resolved that the nucleus of the comet has separated into at least four distinct pieces resulting in a large increase in dust material in its coma,” said Rachel Stevenson, a post-doctoral fellow working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
The more dust, the brighter the comet will appear since there’s more material to reflect sunlight. Hergenrother has faded some recently but still shines at about 10.5 magnitude (my estimate) and makes a fine target for amateur telescopes. Look for it high in the southeastern sky during early evening hours. Click HERE for a finder chart.
Meteors come from comets. They’re the dust that gets boiled off the comet’s nucleus and pushed down the tail by sunlight. As a comet travels around the sun, it leaves a trail of gritty crumbs in its wake. Earth crosses some of these trails at particular times of year giving rise to familiar meteor showers like the August Perseids and December Geminids. Dust slams into our atmosphere at thousands of miles an hour and quickly vaporizes, creating a glowing tube of light or meteor.
There’s more going on besides the election next week. Nov. 5-13 marks the peak of the Northern and Southern Taurid meteor showers. Showers usually hit maximum over a one or two day period, but the Taurids have a broad plateau lasting weeks. At peak, you might see around 7 meteors per hour.
You’re welcome to pull up a chair and face east or south for an hour, but you may be disappointed. Given their broad distribution, Taurid meteors are more likely something you’ll see while you’re outside at night doing something else.
While sparse, the dual showers are famed for their slow fireballs. If you see a brilliant, orange-colored meteor slowly arcing across the sky and can trace its path back toward the Pleiades, chances are you’ve caught a Taurid. I’ve seen a few over the years and remember them as not only bright but breaking into pieces as they burned up overhead.
The Southern Taurids peak on the 5th; the northern version on Nov.12-13th. Both showers are connected to Encke’s Comet or possibly a larger comet that broke into fragments in a manner similar to Comet Hergenrother. One of the fragments became Encke’s Comet while other chunks of debris may have evolved into the dual showers.
Meteor showers normally appear to radiate from one spot in the sky. The double radiant for the Taurids tells us this is an ancient meteor stream that has diverged and spread out over time from the accumulated gravitational tugs of the sun and planets. This year we’re expected to cross a thicker-than-usual stream of comet dust, so expect a slightly better chance of seeing your first Taurid meteor. The best time to watch is later at night after 11 o’clock, when Taurus and the Pleiades are high are in the eastern sky. For more details on the Taurids click HERE.