Written by: on June 22, 2020 @ 6:00 am

Ever had the chance to make a wish on a shooting star? This superstition originated around 2000 years ago in Ancient Greece, believed to be gods peering down to Earth from the skies. Science has confirmed that falling stars has nothing to do with the Olympian gods; this source of luck is a fiery space rock falling into Earth’s atmosphere!

Our solar system is made up of planets, stars, asteroids, comets, and meteoroids. Asteroids are huge rocks, ranging from 33 feet in diameter to 329 miles in diameter, which orbit the sun and are often referred to as minor planets. Meteoroids are small, rocky pieces broken off asteroids; a meteor occurs when a meteoroid falls through Earth’s atmosphere, begins to burn, and creates a streak of light across the sky! Meteors travel through our atmosphere at tens of thousands of miles per hour, this intense speed causes the air in front of the falling meteor to compress extremely quickly, creating immense heat and burning the meteor. Stars are burning balls of gas which can burn to up to 100,000⁰F (55,500⁰C), while meteors burn at around 3,000⁰F (1,650⁰C)! Being that they are both blazing balls of fire, we can see how meteors got the misnomer of “shooting star!”

It is easiest to view a meteor at night as they fall 34 to 70 miles above Earth’s surface. Meteors will typically disintegrate as they fall, but sometimes survive the trip to the surface! Once meteors land on Earth’s surface they are called meteorites. NASA has a large collection of meteorites, compiled from around the world, which is used to learn more about the other planets, asteroids and comets within our social system! By completing chemical analysis on fallen meteorites, we have been able to determine the cause of the colors you may see during a meteor shower! A red hue is cased by silicate, purple is caused by potassium, green and blue is caused by copper, yellow by iron, and yellow or orange is caused by sodium!

Comet ISON Passes Through Virgo

Meteors are often mistaken for comets. Comets are like asteroids being that they are large bodies that orbit around the sun, expect comets are composed of ice, gas and dust, nicknamed “dirty snowballs.” Comets are extremely large and can be the size of a town while they are frozen, they are believed to be left over pieces of material from when the solar system was formed! As the comet’s orbit brings it nearer to the sun, the comet begins to heat up, melt and burn, spewing its dust and gas into a giant, glowing tail; this looks much like a falling meteor. Unlike meteors which are falling within Earth’s atmosphere, comets are extremely far away from Earth! The burning tail of a comment can be millions of miles in length and can be observed from earth from over 70 million miles away! Halley’s Comet, the most famous of comets, can be observed from Earth every 75 years, projected to return in the year 2061!

There are currently 958,714 known asteroids and 3,646 known comments in our solar system. Of the almost million asteroids we have identified, there are many smaller, broken meteoroids floating around in space. Our planet is hit by 17 meteorites a day, with about 90-95% of meteors burning up before they land on Earth’s surface. That makes about 6,100 meteors each year! Celebrate Meteor Watch Day each year on June 30th with clear skies and meteor showers!

Take a hands-on approach to learning about meteors on Meteor Watch Day by doing the Crater Maker’s Experiment! https://sciencemadefun.net/downloads/crater_makers.pdf

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