Meteor showers have fascinated the inhabitants of the earth since the beginning of humankind. They have inspired songs like “Catch a Falling Star” and fairy tales like “The Girl with the 3 Matches”. Native peoples of all kinds of cultures have seen them as omens preceding events of great significance, similar to the appearance of comets.
So, what is a meteor shower?
A Meteor shower is a phenomenon in which hundreds of “shooting stars” can be viewed every hour. Meteor showers occur annually at various times and are named for the constellations from which they appear (such as the Perseids, Orionids and Leonids). I live out in the country and I have found that the best place to see meteor showers is in an elevated place where there are no city lights, such as in a rural area!
Most shooting stars are actually debris floating in space. Most of the debris the earth comes in contact with is “dust” (very small particles) left behind by comets traveling through the solar system. When the Earth happens to run into this debris while orbiting the sun, those pieces of debris enter our atmosphere at high speeds and heat up until they burn up (they vaporize, layer by layer in very high temperatures, generated by the friction of entering our atmosphere) and give off a bright light (they “incandesce”). They are called meteoroids.
The question is: if most of those meteors are only tiny particles, how can we see them as a rather large and bright streak of light in the sky?
Amazingly, a grain-sized meteoroid will have a meteor tail that is only a few feet (about a meter) wide, but it may be many miles long because of the high speed of the debris.
Evidently, while they lack in size, they make up for it in speed (7 to 45 miles per second (11 to 72 kilometers per second!)), and this is why we can observe them in the sky!
Some interesting facts:
Meteoroids come in all shapes and sizes. They may be just bigger than a molecule and or up to about 330 feet (100 meters). Anything bigger than this is considered an asteroid.
Meteor showers happen on all kinds of planets, not just Earth.
If a meteor makes it through the atmosphere and lands on Earth (or another planet, for that matter), it is called a meteorite.
Meteoroids heat up to temperatures of up to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, or 1,649 degrees Celsius until they vaporize during atmospheric entry. The extreme heat breaks up the molecules of both the meteoroid and the atmosphere (which is full of diverse matter, which causes friction) into glowing ionized particles, which then combine again and release light energy in form of a short-lived “meteor tail.”
Meteors are best viewed with the naked eye. They are just too fast to be followed with a telescope!
For information on upcoming meteor showers you can go to www.NASA.gov and various other websites.
TIP: When you go out to watch a meteor shower, be sure to bring a nice warm blanket and a loved one! Happy observing!