Have you ever wished on a shooting star? Did you know that it is not an actual star, but rather a tiny particle, anywhere from the size of a grain of sand to the size of a softball, crashing through the Earth’s atmosphere? Why does it look like a star? When the meteor enters the Earth’s atmosphere, it creates friction. This causes it to become very hot and bright, making it appear to be a star. [photo via flickr]
There are approximately 15,000 tons of meteors – that equals millions of meteors- that enter the Earth’s atmosphere every day. Most of these meteors burn up in the atmosphere. When the meteor does not burn up completely, and parts reach the Earth’s surface, it is called a meteorite. A meteor impacted in Siberia on June 30, 1908, and it is believed that this is the origin of Meteor Day.
Scientists estimate that 500 meteorites reach the Earth’s surface every day. Not all of these are found. Over 38,000 meteorites have been found on Earth. Most are found in the desert or in Antarctica. Meteorites are very different from rocks from Earth. Meteors are a mixture of rock and ice. Meteorites are usually a mixture of rock and iron and nickel.
When you see a meteor it may look like it is very close to Earth, but it is actually about 35 miles above the Earth’s surface. Meteors are also extremely fast. The slowest meteors travel 25,000 miles per hour (mph) while some meteors have reached speeds up to 160,000 mph.
The summer is an excellent time to watch a meteor shower. You can see Lyrids in June and Perseids in August. Meteor showers occur when the Earth passes through a meteoroid (a meteor in space) stream left by a comet. Perseids is caused by Comet Swift-Tuttle. This comet visits this solar system every 130 years. The trail it leaves is thousands of miles long. Its trail is made up of small particles of dust and ice which results in a meteor shower as Earth passes through it.
The best meteor viewing is from a very dark spot. Sit in a chair or lay on a blanket on the ground. It will take about a half hour for your eyes to adjust to the dark. Meteor showers can have over 100 meteors an hour! Some meteor showers will even produce different colors of light. This happens when different chemicals in the meteors vaporize as it travels.
If you are lucky, you can see a meteor almost any night of the year. Celebrate Meteor Day on June 30 by watching the night sky in search of a meteor. Good luck and don’t forget to make your wish!