Shooting stars are the stuff of fantasy and mysticism. Throughout history, these “falling stars” were so enigmatic that they were the stuff of legends. Many cultures saw them as messages from the cosmos or signs of the spirit world. Even today, some believe that shooting stars can grant a wish and unlock the mysteries of the universe!
Despite what you might think, shooting stars are not rare. Scientists and astronomers have studied them for years. Not only that, but something is “falling” from outer space every minute somewhere on Earth.
There’s no denying that shooting stars are an awe-inspiring sight. But what are they?
What is a Shooting Star?
Contrary to popular belief, shooting stars are not stars at all! Instead, they are small chunks of space debris that enters Earth’s atmosphere. Most rocks become visible somewhere between 40 and 75 miles above the ground.
When this debris is still floating in interplanetary space, it’s called a meteoroid. Meteoroids can vary dramatically in size. But, most are roughly the size of a pebble. Larger rocks are called asteroids. They can do some significant damage to Earth’s surface but are rare. Smaller pieces of debris are called planetary dust.
Either way, shooting stars are nothing more than cosmic leftovers! Scientists believe that they are raw ingredient remnants from the creation of our solar system. They can tell us a lot about outer space and other planets. NASA studies them intensively to gather new information about the far reaches of space.
These space rocks enter Earth’s orbit before breaking through to the atmosphere. They travel at breakneck speeds. On average, high-speed meteoroids travel at about 300,000 miles per hour!
On the way down, they hit air particles. This process creates intense friction that can heat the meteoroid to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit!
Even the most resilient materials don’t handle that heat very well. Most meteoroids vaporize upon entry into our atmosphere. Those beautiful streaks of lights you see behind a shooting star? That’s the vaporization process. Technically speaking, the flash of light is called a meteor.
Most shooting stars don’t make it to the surface of our planet before they vaporize into nothing. But, they certainly provide a beautiful show for stargazers! If they do manage to survive the “fall,” the resulting rock is called a meteorite.
Larger meteoroids can enter the atmosphere, too. Generally, the largest shooting stars are called fireballs or bolides. The vaporization process can be so intense that it’s visible to the naked eye during the day! Big chunks of meteoroids can hit the ground and create a crater. However, most will explode close to the ground first.
One of the most recent fireballs to occur happened in 2013 over Chelyabinsk, Russia. A 17-meter rock exploded a mere 12 to 15 miles above the ground. Because it was so close, the resulting explosion damaged buildings and injured about 1,000 people!
How Common are Shooting Stars?
Shooting stars and meteors are more common than most think. There’s space debris all around our solar system. Scientists estimate that waste enters our atmosphere every minute.
The reason many people think they’re rare is that not all chunks are visible. As mentioned earlier, the intense heat causes the minerals to vaporize. For smaller pieces, that occurs in the upper atmosphere before you can even see the trail of light with the naked eye.
All that said, it’s easier to look for shooting stars with the naked eye. Telescopes are suitable for comets and planetary objects. But, they provide a limited view.
To view shooting stars, visit a dark spot in the northern hemisphere. Go before dawn, as the Earth’s orbit will expose your location to more space grit. Chances are, you’ll see at least one shooting star! If you’re lucky, you may even see one or two meteors a minute!
Meteor showers are a continual “rainfall” of shooting stars. They occur at particular times of the year in distinct spots that astrophysicists can estimate. During a shower, dozens of shooting stars will light up the night sky. The same processes that create the streaks of light with meteors occur with meteor showers. But, the prevalence of those meteoroids is far greater.
That’s because they come from the debris trail left behind by a comet. Astrophysics experts know when Earth moves through the debris trail. The position of these debris clouds can move due to influence from Jupiter and other planets. But, scientists know that at least 11 meteor showers occur every year.
One of the most notable annual meteor shower events happens in August. It’s called the Perseid meteor shower, which is named after the Perseus constellation. The debris that burns in the atmosphere is from a thousand-year-old cloud of dust left behind by the comet Swift-Tuttle.
Another annual event is the Leonid meteor shower. It occurs in November and burns debris from the Tempel-Tuttle comet. This particular meteor shower is regarded by many as the birth of meteor astronomy.
The Orionids meteor shower is a result of Haley’s comet. Generally, this shower happens in October. There’s also the Lyrids shower, which humans have been documenting for well over 2,000 years!
Not all meteor showers come from comets. While that’s the norm, there are a few exceptions. The most notable are the Quadrantids and Geminids meteor showers. The former occurs in January and is a product of a larger asteroid called 2003 EH1. The Geminids shower sprays meteors from the Gemini constellation thanks to the near-Earth asteroid named 3200 Phaeton. It happens in December.
Shooting stars are a sight to behold! While they are very common, the awe-inspiring show never gets old. The best way to experience them yourself is with the naked eye in a spot that’s free of light pollution. Try your hand at stargazing and see how many you can spot!