What are shooting stars and when can you observe them yourself?
If you see a shooting star in the sky, you can make a wish, at least that’s the story. Are shooting stars as rare as a four leaf clover? It’s not too bad, but it’s good to know what you’re actually looking at. For what is a shooting star? And is a shooting star really a star?
What is a shooting star ?
The short answer? No. Contrary to what its name suggests, a shooting star is not a star at all. In reality, a shooting star is a meteor that crosses the dam circle and burns up. And what is a meteor then? It is a rock from space, small or large, which often comes from a comet or an asteroid.
These glowing fragments travel through space at tremendous speed. As soon as a meteor enters the dam ring, it often burns up immediately. This usually happens relatively close to Earth – around 75 to 100 kilometers above the Earth’s surface – so that we can observe the meteor’s burning shooting star.
Can such a shooting star really land on you or on me? This chance is minimal, almost every meteor burns up during its journey through the atmosphere. Only one of them survives the trip and can touch Earth. In this case, however, we are not talking about a meteor (or a shooting star), but about a meteorite. Moreover, such a space rock is more likely to end up in the sea – the oceans cover about 70% of our planet – than in your backyard.
When can you see shooting stars?
Shooting stars are not seasonal, you can observe them all year round. Earth’s gravity constantly attracts small and large floating pieces of rock from the universe.
It may happen that you suddenly see many shooting stars passing by in a short time. We call it a meteor shower or a meteor shower. Such a meteor shower occurs when Earth moves through a cloud of dust or debris left behind by a comet. You can compare it to the windshield of a car that suddenly gets dirty quickly as you drive through a swarm of flies.
Shooting stars from Comet Swift-Tuttle
When should you be ready to see such a meteor shower full of shooting stars? Every year around mid-August, one of the most famous meteor showers happens: the Perseids.
The dust particles in the Perseid meteor shower come from comet Swift-Tuttle, named after the astronauts who discovered the comet in 1860. However, the comet itself is several times older: more than 4, 5 billion years ago, this comet and others emerged from the remnants of galaxy formation. They are mainly made up of stones, dust and ice. So that shooting star you see in the evening sky is billions of years old.
Read also: in this place in South Africa, you can watch shooting stars from your bed. And find the best places in the world for stargazing here.
Willeke van Doorn studied journalism, traveled the world for a while and ended up working for Quest, National Geographic and Runner’s World editors via the US, Australia and New Zealand. She is curious about the world, prefers to travel every month and always takes her running shoes with her.
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