Let's Talk About: Meteor Showers

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If you look at the sky long enough on any clear night, you can see a meteor or "shooting star." However, at certain times of the year, we are treated to a shower of shooting stars. The showers occur when Earth passes near or through the remaining dust and rock fragments of a dead comet as they continue to circle the Sun along the comet's orbit. Nearly a dozen meteor showers can be seen each year.

Interplanetary space contains chunks of matter ranging in size from a speck of dust to many miles across. Scientists think up to 10,000 tons of meteors fall on Earth each day, but most of this material is very tiny -- in the form of micrometeoroids or dust-like grains a few micrometers in size. These particles are so tiny that the air resistance is enough to slow them sufficiently that they do not burn up, but rather fall gently to Earth. In space the large chunks are called meteoroids. When this chunk of rock impacts on the surface of a planet or moon, it's called a meteorite. When we see a track of light in the sky when rock or dust is vaporized by friction as it enters Earth's upper atmosphere, it's called a meteor or shooting star.

Meteor showers take their name from the constellation or part of the sky they seem to radiate from or the position from which the meteors appear to come from. The primary source of the most dramatic meteor showers is comet debris streams, but they come from other sources, too. The Leonids are associated with Comet Tempel-Tuttle and Lyrids with Comet Thatcher. The Orionids are associated with Comet Halley and the Perseids with Comet Swift-Tuttle.

The hours between midnight and dawn are typically the best time for viewing a meteor shower. That's when Earth is facing head-on into the meteor stream.



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