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What are shooting stars? Meteor Showers 101

Nearly 50 tons of space debris crash onto the earth every day. While some debris shyly dissipate into the atmosphere, others display a spectacular light show.

Meteor showers occur when the Earth’s orbit intersects with the orbit of a comet. As comets travel, they leave behind trails of rocky material, oftentimes the size of pebbles or grains of sand, but sometimes as large as boulders.

Every year, the Earth crosses these trails of debris, known as meteoroid streams, and the planet becomes sprinkled with rocky material. The debris then race through the Earth’s atmosphere creating friction with air particles and generating vast amounts of heat. This heat vaporizes and illuminates the debris as they fall, creating streaks of light in the sky…

‘Shooting stars’ and ‘falling stars’ are these illuminated meteors as they fall through our planet’s atmosphere. This Meteor Showers 101 video from National Geographic explains the phenomenon, how we name the showers and when we might expect them.

shooting star - meteor in the night sky
This Geminid Meteor Shower time-lapse, seen at Big Sur by Kenneth Brandon in 2012, provides additional examples:

Related reading at NASA: Meteors & Meteorites.

Follow this video with these: Space Rocks: Comets, asteroids, meteors, & meteorites, how to observe a meteor shower, a night time lapse of Comet Lovejoy, and inside the Meteorite Clean Room at the Smithsonian.

Plus, an animated music video by They Might Be Giants: What is a Shooting Star?

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