What are Shooting Stars and what causes Meteor Showers

The inspiration behind myths, poems, novels and paintings, witnessing a shooting star is a brief and magical vision that has always fascinated mankind. Many cultures have attached superstitions to shooting stars and traditionally seeing a shooting star was sign of a birth, new beginnings or changes for the better.

Wishing upon a falling star, so the old saying goes, will be a wish come true. Although the origin of this superstition is unknown, without a doubt it is connected with the lure and fascination of the universe and the majestic splendour of a shooting star as it streaks across the heavens and within seconds, disappears.

But what is a shooting star and what causes them to streak so magnificently across the night time sky?

Shooting Stars by another name ~

Shooting stars are actually the result of meteoroids entering the earth’s atmosphere. Meteoroids are objects made up of dust and debris and extraterrestrial rock of all shapes and sizes. When smaller than a piece of sand, these objects are normally called interplanetary dust. When they are as big as a boulder, they are called asteroids.

Gravity pulls these meteoroids into the earth’s atmosphere and they can approach our world at speeds of up to 50 miles a second. So as the meteor enters the Earth’s atmosphere, air friction heats them to such a heat they start to glow like stars.  From the Earth it looks like we are seeing a shooting star when in reality we are witnessing a meteor, the glowing trail of gases and melted particles from the meteoroid, streaking across the sky, as it burns up in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Shooting stars are quite rare to see because they appear and vanish almost in a wink of an eye. Most meteors glow for about a second before they disappear and most are destroyed before reaching the Earth. Some do last a little longer and don’t burn up completely. When they hit the earth, these are called meteorites.

At certain times of the year, an abundance of ‘shooting stars’ can be seen in the night time sky as meteor activity intensifies. Because it can be forecast when they are likely to occur, these periods, known as meteor showers, are popular astronomical events for amateur astronomers. Meteor showers are one of the few astronomical wonders that are best witnessed with the naked eye. They are best viewed on a moonless night ideally, away from city lights.

The next best opportunity to witness a meteor shower will be around the 17th and 18th November between midnight and dawn. In the meantime, you will have to be quick to see a shooting star as they usually last only up to a second or two before they disintegrate completely and disappear.


EarthSky’s meteor shower guide for 2017