Great balls of fire! We're undergoing a bombardment from space.

Actually, this is just an unusually active episode of the annual Taurid meteor shower.

Heidi Moore and her husband, Mark, were driving across Point of the Mountain last week when they were amazed to see a pair of bright fireballs race overhead.

"It was so surprising and so very close," she said. Looking out the window, she saw that one of them appeared to reach down to eye level. The fireball was silvery, with a long, sparkling tail. "It looked like a fireworks," she recalled. "It was shooting down really fast and just burned up."

Other Utahns reported fireballs over the past few nights, as noted on the Utah Astronomy e-mail discussion list. The site is maintained by Cynthia Heyman, and anyone interested in astronomy can subscribe to it by going online to: mailman.xmission.com/cgi-bin/mailman/listinfo/utah-astronomy.

Ed Lunt, Kaysville, wrote that he was driving home a week ago when "I saw an extremely bright meteor that fell all the way to the horizon."

At La Verkin, Washington County, Debbie Whitaker was photographing a double star cluster on Halloween night when she noticed two meteors. Meteors a few days previous were even better, she said.

Patrick Wiggins, media liaison for the Salt Lake Astronomical Society, noted, "Speaking of meteors, (last) Sunday night during the Mars Watch at SPOC (Stansbury Park Observatory Complex), a meteor passed through Orion and left a train that was easily visible to the naked eye for over six minutes."

The most distant report by a member of the discussion group came from Hawaii. "We had a similar experience (last) Sunday night from our Kaupo site," wrote Rob Ratkowski.

"We had seen about a dozen sporadics but around 9 p.m. we saw a bolide that reached over 120 degrees of sky coming from Taurus. It reminded me of what a 10-inch Fourth of July firework looked like at launch. The track was straight but had small particles ablating from the meteor, brightness was even and estimated at mag -6."

Seth Jarvis, director of Clark Planetarium at The Gateway, commented that the impression some people get that a meteor nearly reached the ground could be mistaken sometimes.

Depending on the observation, what visually looks like a near-ground meteor actually could be one that "made it down to airliner altitudes before either vaporizing or losing incandescence," he said.

These are called Taurid meteors because they seem to be coming from the general direction of the constellation called Taurus ("the bull").

A NASA news release points out that astronomers have taken to calling the Taurid meteors "Halloween fireballs." But there's more to it than Halloween, adds the space agency. "The display has been going on for days."

In late October and early November, Earth passes through a river of space dust associated with Comet Encke, said NASA, quoting David Asher of the Armagh Observatory in Northern Ireland. Usually meteors show up when tiny grains of leftover debris from the comet hit the atmosphere and burn up.

Most years the show isn't impressive. But some years the Taurids put on a show. That's when a swarm of larger particles, like the size of pebbles or small stones, hits the air, according to Asher.

He thinks 2005 might be such a year. If so, the show may be just beginning. NASA says the peak of the Taurid meteor shower is between Nov. 5 and Nov. 12. They may be rare, but the fireballs can be impressive.

The best views may be around midnight. But Taurid meteors may show up anytime the constellation Taurus is above the horizon, says NASA, and it rises in the east at sundown.

Once night falls, if the weather is clear, just look up. You just may glimpse a surprising streak as part of Comet Encke burns up.


E-mail: bau@desnews.com