December 11, 2012

Meteors 101: What Are Meteors, Exactly?

A lot of people have heard about meteors and some people might have even seen them and called them shooting stars. These streaks of light at night aren’t stars at all, however; they are meteors.

In a nutshell, meteors refer to visible paths that meteoroids making after they enter the atmosphere of the Earth. Meteoroids, on the other hand, refer to debris in the solar system, in general. This debris ranges from the size of a grain of sand to the size of a boulder. Although meteorites are usually called “meteor rocks” or “meteorites” by people, this isn’t actually correct. While the majority of meteorites stem from asteroids, some of them might come from Mars, the moon, or from a comet.

Meteoroids tend to travel around the sun in various speeds and orbits. When our planet encounters a meteoroid, they then appear as meteors streaking through the night sky. Conversely, if our planet passes through a big cluster of these meteoroids, we will get to see a dazzling meteor shower of streaking lights in the night.

Usually meteor showers occur after the Earth passes through a field of debris that is left over from the tail of a comet. So far, the most impressive and the brightest annual meteor shower would be the Leonids shower, which peaks in November every year. This shower occurs every time the Earth passes through the leftover debris by Tempel-Tuttle, a comet.

Not every meteor burns up completely in the atmosphere of the Earth, though. However, if they are found on the Earth itself, they are either called falls or finds. Falls refer to meteorites that people find after witnessing meteors and see them fall onto the ground. Finds, on the other hand, refer or meteorites that people after the meteors have occurred, but weren’t actually witnessed in person.

Meteorites actually come from bigger meteors that make it through the atmosphere and hit the Earth’s surface. On average, around 500 meteorites of various shapes and sizes reach the Earth’s surface every year. Sometimes, they are even big enough to leave craters on the Earth’s surface, as well.

Meteorites are considered to be very valuable to scientists overall since they can provide lots of vital information regarding the solar system, in general. However, the majority of meteors still burn up within the atmosphere – just long enough to give us shooting stars to wish upon.

If you’ve never seen a shooting star or a meteor in your life so far, then you might want to go out in July or August, lay back on a reclining chair on your lawn and just look straight up at the sky. Ideally, you should do this past midnight when there is less light pollution. It would be even better if the moon isn’t visible in the sky that night. You shouldn’t have any trouble spotting a meteor in mere minutes then.

Meteors generally appear as fast-moving streaks of light, which only last for two seconds or so. This might seem unexciting right now, but since meteors actually travel at thousands of miles an hour and are smaller than peas, they definitely are amazing feats to witness!

So, how are these tiny objects from space able to put on such spectacular shows all the time? Well, to tell you the truth, you aren’t actually going to see the actual space particles from where you are on your lawn or elsewhere. You will only be able to see the gas reactions in the Earth’s atmosphere as the meteors react to the friction that their falls create.

The particles that cause the meteors to appear are quite interesting objects in the world of astronomy. In fact, their given names actually change, depending on where they happen to be at any given time. As mentioned earlier, they are called meteoroids while they move through space, meteors when they are in the Earth’s atmosphere, and meteorites when they are big enough to hit the Earth’s surface.

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