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A Leonid fireball captured over Sweden in 2015. 

Spaceweather.com/Andre Pooschke

Say what you will about 2020, it’s been a dazzling year in the night sky, with bright comets and plentiful meteor showers that continue in November with the annual appearance of the Taurids and Leonids.

The Southern Taurid and Northern Taurid showers are active now and tend to produce a lot of sizzle in the form of fireballs that light up the skies. The Southern Taurid branch has already peaked, but can continue to contribute to the overall fireball count. The Northern Taurids are expected to reach maximum activity the night of Nov. 11 into the following morning, according to the American Meteor Society, or AMS.

The Taurids are produced when Earth drifts through a cloud of debris left behind by Comet 2P/Encke around this time each year. Small chunks of dust might be seen burning up in our upper atmosphere as “shooting stars,” while larger bits of space rock can produce more dramatic fireballs. 

Meanwhile, the Leonids are just becoming active this week and will stay with us until the end of the month. This shower can be traced back to the comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle and has put on some real shows over the centuries in the form of intense meteor storms that produce hundreds of visible meteors per hour.

AMS says it’s unlikely we’ll see such a storm in our lifetimes (the most recent was in 2001), although 2030 might see a minor storm. This year, the Leonids do offer the opportunity to see around 15 meteors per hour at peak on Nov. 16 and Nov. 17, when the tiny sliver of a moon won’t produce much interference. The Leonids tend to be pretty bright with some persistent trains. 

To catch any Taurids or Leonids, the best strategy is to venture out in the early morning pre-dawn hours as close to the showers’ respective peaks as possible. Remove yourself from light pollution if you can, dress appropriately and find a comfortable place to lay back with a clear, wide view of the sky. 

Next, relax, let your eyes adjust and just watch. It’s not necessary to focus on a particular area of the sky, but if you can spot the constellations Leo and Taurus, the Leonids and Taurids will appear to originate from these parts of the sky, respectively, and streak outward like spokes on a wheel.  

Enjoy a little fire in the sky and pass along any epic fireball photos you happen to catch on Twitter @EricCMack.

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