Shooting stars are one of nature’s magnificent displays, which we all adore, but did you ever stop and ask yourself, “What is a shooting star?” Shooting stars have always intrigued and amazed human minds.
Before science discovered the answers to “What is a shooting star?”, various cultures gave out their own interpreted meaning for shooting stars.
Ptolemy, the Greek astronomer, stated that shooting stars are a result of gods trying to open the sky to see the events taking place on Earth.
Hence people believed his narrative regarding what is a shooting star, which led to them thinking that open skies would mean that the gods would most likely listen to them and grant their wishes. This is why people started making wishes when they spotted shooting stars.
Today we have come a long way in our knowledge regarding the Earth and the universe. Although there is much left to discover, the origin and science behind what is a shooting star have been discovered, and we have a much better understanding of it.
If you’re wondering what is a shooting star, first thing’s first, the name “shooting stars” is a misnomer because it has nothing to do with stars. Yes, there is so much more to this beautiful phenomenon. So without further ado, let us unravel the origin and the facts about “What is a shooting star?”
What is a Shooting Star
So now that we know that shooting stars aren’t actually stars, the question here is, “Just, what is a shooting star?” Our solar system consists of the Sun, planets and debris or bits of rocks floating in space. Some of these rocks are as tiny as dust, and some are as huge as boulders.
When a space rock enters the Earth’s atmosphere at a very high speed, they rub against air particles which create friction and heats up the meteors. This heat vaporizes the meteors, setting them ablaze and forming what we call a shooting star or falling star.
Depending on the form of the debris, there are several nomenclatures for shooting stars. The debris coming from space are called meteoroids.
Once the meteoroid enters the atmosphere of the Earth, it gets hot and blazing, and these are called meteors. Most of the meteors burn out before they hit the surface of the Earth.
However, some do reach the Earth’s surface forming craters as a result. These are called meteorites.
So now we know what is a shooting star. They are simply meteoroids entering Earth’s atmosphere. However, to have a better understanding of what is a shooting star, we need to know where meteoroids come from.
Where do Space Rocks Come From
The key to understanding “What is a shooting star?” is knowing what a meteoroid is. Space rocks or meteoroids are left behind by asteroids, comets, or the formation of the solar system.
These rocks also orbit around the Sun and are a part of the solar system. When their orbit intersects with the orbit of the Earth, the Earth’s gravity compels them to charge toward the Earth’s surface at a very high speed.
Some of the debris is also left behind by comets that break off as they pass near the Sun repeatedly. Comet consists of dust and frozen gases, and they become visible when they closely approach the Sun.
Due to the heat of the Sun, the comet’s icy surface becomes warm and starts to evaporate. These gases, while evaporating, carry with them any solid material mixed with the ice originally.
So every time a comet passes near the Sun, a stream of material is broken off from it. These streams of particles also orbit the Sun, although in a slightly different path than its source comet.
They eventually form a thin band of material that the Earth encounters every year during its journey around the Sun.
How Rare is it to See Shooting Stars
Now that we know what is a shooting star and where they come from, the next question is, “How often can we see shooting stars?”
Our solar system is so full of dust, and they are constantly coming in contact with the Earth’s orbit as they journey around the Sun. This causes a phenomenon known as “sporadic meteor,” which brings forth about ten shooting stars in an hour.
Then there are the micrometeoroids, which amateur astronomers most admire. It is said that about 25 million micrometeoroids enter the Earth’s atmosphere daily.
However, it is most prominent when the Earth’s orbit intersects a comet’s orbit, where the micrometeoroids are much denser. This leads to a phenomenon known as “meteor shower,” during which about 100 shooting stars can be produced within an hour.
How are Meteor Showers Named
Meteor showers are named after the constellation where they seem to originate from. They seem to radiate from a certain point in the sky which is known as a radiant.
This is due to the effect of perspective, just as two rail tracks seem to converge at a single point in the horizon.
The naming of meteor showers is done by the International Astronomical Union’s (IAU) Task Group on Meteor Shower Nomenclature and the Meteor Data Center.
When do Meteor Showers Take Place
Meteor showers take place when the Earth passes through a field of meteoroids left behind by comets as they journey around the Sun.
Since the Earth goes around the Sun as well every year, it tends to meet the same field of meteorites each year. This is why the major meteor showers tend to occur at the same time every year.
What are Some Well-known Meteor Showers
As of 2019, there are about 112 meteor showers that are established. The most visible meteor shower called Perseids takes place on the 12th of August every year with a frequency of one meteor per minute.
Another well-known meteor shower is called the Leonids meteor shower, which occurs around 17 November every year. At approximately every 33 years, Leonids produces a meteor storm or meteor outbursts.
Geminids is another meteor shower that occurs in December and peaks around 4-16 December, the highest intensity being on the morning of December 14. It seems to appear from the radiant in Gemini constellation.
This shower is thought to be intensifying each year, with recent showers being 120-160 meteors per hour.
Meteor storms are very intense meteor showers and are also known as meteor outbursts. They produce about 1000 meteors per hour. One of the most notable meteor storms in history occurred in the year 1966 when the Leonids shower hit the Earth with a frequency of about 40 meteors per second.
The Leonids originated from the comet Tempel-Tuttle(55P). The Earth encounters this stream every year in the month of November. It gets its name from the Leo constellation as its radiant appears to be from that constellation.
The Leonids had been almost quiet for 100 years between 1866 and 1966. Many viewers recalled seeing stars falling every which way during the meteor storm caused by the Leonid meteor shower. The next storm is predicted to be in 2034 and 2035.
How to Watch a Meteor Shower
The first thing to do while preparing for any stargazing trip is to go as further away from the city as possible. This is to avoid light pollution from the city as they make it difficult to observe the night sky with clarity.
The best spots for stargazing are the suburbs. You can observe millions of stars spread across the sky.
It is important to know which direction to look for a shower. This depends on which shower you are looking for. For example, if you are looking for the Leonids shower, its radiant point will be in the Leo constellation.
It is also important to know when the peak shower would take place for the best observation. For example, the Leonids shower usually starts on the 6th of November to 30th November, but its peak activity takes place on 17th November.
Do Meteors Reach the Earth
Most meteors are very small, and hence they disintegrate in the atmosphere. However, there are some large meteors that do reach the ground. These are called meteorites, and they are quite rare.
It is believed that dinosaurs and large reptiles that inhabited the Earth long ago were probably wiped out due to the impact of a meteorite that hit the Earth on the Gulf of Mexico.
It is believed that the impact of that meteorite was a billion times more powerful than the atomic bombs that hit Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Another incident occurred recently on 15th February 2013 in Chelyabinsk, Russia, when a meteorite about the size of 19m moved across the sky.
Although the atmosphere managed to explode into hundreds of pieces and no big boulders landed on the ground, a large number of small rocks rained down, injuring thousands of people.
Some Famous Craters Formed by Meteorites
Earth’s lone satellite, the Moon, is known to have numerous craters on its surface as meteorites continuously bombard them. They do not form a blazing light show as the Moon does not have an atmosphere. Although not as much as the Moon, our planet earth is home to some incredible craters too.
1. Barringer Crater
Barringer Crater was formed by a large iron crater that crashed just 50,000 years ago in the Colorado plateau. Its origins were first discovered by Daniel Moreau Barringer, who stated that it was caused by a meteorite.
This statement was not received well by many scientists at that time. However, Barringer continued his research and finally provided proof of the origin, and his statement was accepted.
2. Lonar Crater
Lonar Crater is located in the Deccan Plateau in the Southern part of India. It is located in a huge basaltic plain leftover from a volcanic eruption.
It was initially thought to be a volcanic crater; however, it is now known to be a meteor crater that was formed between 35,000 to 50,000 years back. The crater is now covered with trees and inhabited by a large number of wildlife and migratory birds.
3. Wolf Creek Crater
Wolfe Creek Crater is located in Wolfe Creek National Park in Australia. The age of the crater is estimated to be about 120,000 years. Scientists estimated the size of the meteorite that caused the crater to be about 50 feet in diameter and weighing 50,000 tons. This is the second-largest known crater in the world, next to the Vredefort Crater.
With this, we conclude, “What is a shooting star?” The Earth is full of natural wonders that continue to baffle ordinary people and scientists alike. Science and astronomy have unraveled a lot of mysteries of this universe and continue to do so. Knowing about what is a shooting star leads us to appreciate our universe even more.
The study and origin of shooting stars have increased our knowledge about the universe and helped prevent future disasters from occurring as a result of falling stars, or rather meteorites hitting the Earth.
We have read about the negative impacts of falling stars. Hence knowing about what is a shooting star and how and when they occur will help to better prepare for combat.
So next time you see a shooting star and wonder, “What is a shooting star?”, you will have so much knowledge about it and be able to see the bigger picture.