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Where Do Meteor Showers Come From? A Cosmic Light Show

mom and girl meteor shower

Sometimes called shooting stars, meteors are pieces of cometary debris and the occasional cloud of asteroid dust that burns up in Earth’s atmosphere. On an average night throughout the year, you can see several meteors an hour. These are caused by random specks of cometary debris, about 1-2 millimeters in diameter, that had the bad luck to be in the way as the Earth came barreling through in its orbit around the Sun.

But what causes these cosmic light shows that take place a few times a year like clockwork?

It’s All About the Orbits

While Earth’s orbit is fairly close to circular, like all the other major planets, the orbits of most comets are tilted off the plane on which the planets orbit the Sun. Also, the shape of their orbit is usually an extreme ellipse, like an elongated circle.

When the comet’s orbit around the Sun intersects Earth’s orbit, similar to the diagram on the right, the ice and dust that blows off the comet as it passes the intersection is left behind. Later, the Earth slices right through dust cloud as it crosses the same intersection.

A Speck By Any Other Name

You may have noticed that meteor showers have names.

The Perseid, Leonid and Geminid meteor showers are a few of the most recognizable. These names are derived from the constellations each shower appears to be radiating from every year as the Earth makes its yearly trip around the Sun.

To picture what “radiating” means as it applies to meteor showers, if you were to record it for the entire night, then play it back at the fastest speed possible, you might think a meteor shower looks similar to the snowflakes in a snowstorm if you were driving with your high beam headlights turned on.

The three showers mentioned above appear to emanate from the constellations Perseus, Leo and Gemini. They occur in August, November and December, respectively.

As of this writing, the next meteor shower coming up will be the Lyrids, which will be peaking on April 23, 2019. If you guessed that they appear to be radiating out of the constellation Lyra, you’d be right!

We’re Surrounded! – The Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud

Earlier, I mentioned that the orbits which comets follow are highly elliptical and tilted off of the orbital plane which the planets follow. Well, those tilted orbits can potentially come from any direction.

Beyond the tiny realm of the major planets, which huddle relatively close to the Sun, there lurk barbarians. The far outer reaches of the solar system are chock-full of potential trouble makers.Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud The two regions listed below are the source of all the comets we see, as well as their debris, which, if their orbit instersects that of fhe Earth, sets the stage for meteor showers.

  • The Kuiper Belt – An inner tube-shaped ring of small solar system bodies which orbit the Sun beginning just beyond the orbit of Neptune, at about 40 Astronomical Units (AU). These objects are leftover material from the formation of the Sun and planets 4.57 billion years ago and composed mostly of ice. They range in size from small chunks of ice to small worldlets, including Pluto, and the slightly larger dwarf planet called Eris. The Kuiper belt is believed to be the source of short-period comets, with orbital periods of 200 years or less.
  • The Oort Cloud – A vast expanse of similar material as the Kuiper belt, the Oort Cloud is believed to begin at about 2000 AU, extending out to almost two light years from the Sun.This spherical domain is the source of long-period comets with orbital periods of longer than 200 years. But don’t let the diagram above fool you. If the Oort cloud were as dense as the picture suggests, we couldn’t see through it!

comet composition

The Main Culprit – The Comet’s Dust Tail

This is what sets the stage for the sky to start falling… or rather, for things to start falling from the sky.  If you’ve ever actually seen a comet, you’d see that it seems to just hang there; a bright ball with a fuzzy tail trailing off behind it.

Other than the rocky core, a comet is mostly composed of ice. Some scientists use the analogy of a dirty snowball, while others prefer calling it a snowy dirtball.

So, as the comet gets closer to the Sun and it’s surface heats up, jets of evaporated ice erupt from the comet and take some of the surface dust particles with it. This is what’s left in the Earth’s path to later become meteors.

Meteoroids and Meteors and Meteorites! Oh, My!

What’s more satisfying than giving a science nerd (like me) a wedgie? Watching him squirm when you use the following terms incorrectly!Meteoroid-meteor-meteorite

  • Meteoroid – A space rock (most commonly about 1-3 millimeters in diameter) traveling through space before it enters Earth’s atmosphere.
  • Meteor – The bright flash of light you see as a space rock burns up in the atmosphere.
  • Meteorite – A space rock that has survived burning up in the atmosphere and has hit the ground.

The Late Show is the Best Show

Now that you know where meteors come from and what causes meteor showers, all you need to do is plan ahead to get the best view!

Did you know that the best time of night to view a meteor shower is after midnight? At that point in the Earth’s rotation, your location on the surface is just beginning to face into the oncoming dust particles. Similar to when driving in the rain, you see more rain hitting the forward-facing windshield than you see hitting the side or rear windows.

So, if you plan on heading out to a dark location to watch an upcoming meteor shower, be sure to pack some energy drinks. Otherwise, you may end up sleeping through the best part of the show!

Mark Your Calendar!

marking the calendar

Check it out! Whether you live in the Northern or Southern Hemisphere, the American Meteor Society maintains an accurate and detailed calendar of upcoming meteor showers and how bright the moon will be during the peak of the shower. (Full moon bad, New moon good!)

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20 Comments

  1. This is great and It really fed my curiosity about where meteors do come from. As a kid I was told its parts of a falling star, until after I got to know about how massive stars are. Am bookmarking this site for such informations and eye openers about astronomy. This is really helpful. Thanks for sharing 

    • Thank you very much for your comment! I’m glad to know you are curious about meteors!

      Joe

  2. Hi Joe!This article is very insightful. Short and very effective I must say. I’ve always hear and read about shooting stars but never got a comprehensive overview of it the way you just outlined everything in here. I’ll like to visit the stars someday. LolAnything is possible anyways. Astronomy and Astronomers both words combined together is Amazing. Thanks for this article. It’s wonderful.

    • Hi! Thank you for your comment! I’m glad you enjoyed it. I’d like to travel to the stars someday too. Well, maybe start with Mars first! 🙂 

      Thanks again!
      Joe

  3. This is a great writeup and I enjoyed every detail you described here. I have gone through some of your articles and I must say you are good at your niche. 

    My question about it is that, How many meteors can I expect to see if I want to observe these meteors when no meteor shower is occurring?

    • Hi Stella. Thank you for your comment! I’m glad you liked it.

      As far as how many meteors you can see when a shower is not going on, it varies. But on average, you might see three or four an hour. But you have a better chance of seeing them after midnight.

      Good luck!
      Joe

  4. Joe, this is so interesting and educative. For people without much interest in space and it’s attendants, this is an interesting article to read and get informed. It is interesting to know that shooting stars are actually just debris from space that is falling to its demise 🙂 and we just stand there and say we are making a wish that would come to pass when we see a shooting star. Thanks for educating us. I really did learn something new and will look forward to more articles/posts from you. 

  5. I didn’t know that meteoroid and meteorite is actually a ‘different’ thing. Thank you so much for explaining the difference here! I’ve missed several meteor shower event during night because of my work, but actually I’m always excited about it when there are news about upcoming meteor shower. I’m curious, is there any modern day event where the meteorite is still large enough after surviving the burn in atmosphere and cause mass panic? Or they usually burn to become very very small stone? Thank you for your answer.

    • Hi Alblue. Thank you for your comment! I’m glad you enjoyed the article.

      Yes, most meteors burn up in the atmosphere. But quite often they don’t completely burn up and make it all the way to the ground. Most of the time they’re pretty small. I once found a meteorite about half the size of my fist.That was exciting!

      Thanks again!
      Joe

  6. Thank you for this very informative article on where do meteors come from. I was wondering if most meteor showers can be seen by the naked eye or do you usually need a telescope to see them?. Also, do you have to be in a certain part of the world to see them or can they be seen from anywhere? Like the one that you said is coming up on April 23, 2019, if I wanted to see this shower where is the best place to see something like that? Thank you.

    • Hi Geoffrey. Thank you for your comment!  I’m glad you enjoyed the article.

      Yes, meteors can be seen with the naked eye. And they happen to quickly for a telescope to be of much use. But if you bring one, you can always look at the planets with it!

      You can see meteor showers anywhere in the world. But the ones visible in the Northern Hemisphere would probably be different than the ones visible in the Southern Hemisphere.

      The only requirement is to go to a place that is very dark at night and not polluted by bright city lights.

      Good luck!
      Joe

  7. Hello Joe! Wonderful write up as usual. It is interesting to know that meteors are also called shooting stars. I now know different names associated with meteor showers, the Leonid, Geminid, Perseid etc and the best time to view a meteor shower. I will take your advice of packing some energy drinks anytime I am ready to watch meteor shower in order not to sleep through the best part. Thanks for an informative article.

    • Hi Gracen! Thank you for your comment! I’m glad you liked the article.

      I know you’ll enjoy watching a meteor shower, especially if you remember the energy drinks!

      Thanks again.
      Joe

  8. Hi Joe!Thank you for sharing your knowledge on Meteors. Wait…are you telling me that there are 3 different types of meteors? That is so cool how come we only call them meteors? Did I use the right term? For the coming meteor shower on April, if I live in NYC, will I get to see it? My concern is the city lights might make it hard to see. Will drive up to some parks upstates and will not forget the energy drinks lol Cheers!

    • Hi Nuttanee! Thank you for your comment! I’m glad you liked the article.

      Yes, you used the right term. Meteor is the word for the bright flash you see when the rock hits the atmosphere.

      Good idea to find a nice, dark park upstate if you want to get a good view of the Lyrids in April.

      Good luck!
      Joe

  9. You are as good at astronomy as I am with movies, ha ha! I would be one of those people who would make you cringe because even when I read about scientific terms I am still lost and I literally read over it again and again and still am lost. I would love to see a meteor shower just as much as I want to see a lunar eclipse. I missed the one they had two years back I was disappointed. Where is the best location to see a meteor shower in all it’s glory? Is it possible to see with a telescope? I noticed you mentioned the next time will be April 23 which is not to far from now! 

    • Hi! Thank you for your comment! I’m glad you liked the article.

      As you said, the Lyrid meteor shower is coming up in April. I highly recommend seeing it. But a telescope wouldn’t help much. Meteors move way to fast to be able to keep up with it with a telescope! They’re one of the few astronomical events that are best viewed with the naked eye.

      All you need is a clear, dark night (preferably away from the city lights), a warm blanket and a few energy drinks to keep you awake! And if you do bring a telescope, you can always use it to get a great look at the planets while you’re waiting for the after-midnight showing!

      Happy Saturday to you too!
      Joe

  10. Love the article.  I am a huge fan of astronomy in general.  I have a quick question, however.  What is the best way to view the showers?

    Obviously, the clearer the sky the better and away from city lights, but is the naked eye just as good as a telescope? Are there regions where the meteor shower is more visible or vibrant?

    • Hi Mike. Thank you for the comment! 

      Actually, a telescope won’t help with meteor showers. They move so fast that they’re best viewed with the naked eye. But don’t let that stop you from bringing a telescope along! 

      Depending on the time of year and where you are in the world, you can always use it to check out the planets that happen to be visible while you’re waiting for midnight.

      Of course, your latitude has a big effect on how well you can see this or that particular meteor shower. Showers that happen over the Southern Hemisphere will be lower in the sky for a Northern Hemisphere viewer, if not actually below the horizon, and vice versa.

      Here’s a link for a calendar of upcoming meteor showers for both hemispheres. I use it so much, I have it bookmarked!

      American Meteor Society
      Give me a shout if you have any other questions!
      Joe

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