What are shooting stars?

A Perseid meteor lights up as it streaks through the Earth's atmosphere, as seen and photographed by Ron Garan while aboard the International Space Station on August 13, 2011. Image credit: NASA

A Perseid meteor lights up as it streaks through the Earth's atmosphere, as seen and photographed by Ron Garan while aboard the International Space Station on August 13, 2011. Image credit: NASA

Shooting stars are little pieces of stuff - usually pebble sized pieces of rock - that have the misfortune of running into our planet. They are technically called “meteors” - this distinguishes them from objects in space, called meteoroids, and bits of rock that actually survive the passage through the atmosphere and reach the surface, which are called meteorites.

Running into the atmosphere of our planet spells doom for most small objects.  As they are slowed down by the atmosphere, they heat up and begin to glow and shed material from their outer layers.  Most of the time, all of the material is lost from the original object relatively quickly, and the meteor fades from sight.  A shooting star can pop up at any time of the day or night, since rocks aren’t very picky about what side of the planet they run into, but the faint ones are much easier to spot when it’s dark out.

A meteor shower is our term for a period of time when the earth is passing through a particularly dirty patch of our orbit, and there are a lot more pebble sized rocks hanging around than usual. By and large, these dusty patches of space are the remains of a comet which passed by years prior. Since comets are essentially dirty cosmic snowballs, when they approach the sun, they heat up, and lose some of the ice on their surface, which in turn allows the smaller rocks embedded within the comet to fly free as well. These small rocks then pepper our atmosphere and make for a very impressive few nights stargazing.

Shooting stars can be colorful, depending on what they’re made of. Different metals in the rock will burn in a different colour, so if there’s a lot of copper in the rock, for instance, the trail of burning material left in our sky may look a little green.

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