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Today (the 30th of June) is the annual “meteor watch day”, and because of this I am on live TV this evening talking about meteors. I haven’t been able to find out why today (the last day of June) is designated as “meteor watch day”, but as the day seems to be American in origin I’d normally suspect that the greeting card industry were behind it! But, in this case, I cannot see too many cards saying “happy meteor watch day” being sold, so maybe on this occasion it is not an invented holiday by the US greeting card industry 😉

What is a meteor?

I have discussed meteors several times before, for example here and here. But, just so this background information is all in one place, I’ll repeat myself. A meteor is simply a bit of (natural) space debris which enters into the Earth’s atmosphere. Before it enters the Earth’s atmosphere it is called a “meteoroid” (or, a really big one would be called an “asteroid”), but upon entering the atmosphere a meteoroid becomes a meteor.

The reason a meteor appears bright is because it is burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere due to friction. Most meteors are very small, no larger than grains of sand, but about once a day something the size of a basketball enters the atmosphere, and about once a week something about the size of a car. Larger and larger meteoroids are less and less common, so for example something the size of the meteor which exploded over Chelyabinsk in southern Russia last year (which is thought to have had a size of 17-20 metres as it entered the Earth’s atmosphere) probably enters the Earth’s atmosphere once every 50 or so years. The larger the meteor, the longer it will take to burn up, so most meteors (the sand-grain sized ones) burn up in less than a second.

A “meteorite” is a meteor which makes it to the ground, or at least of which fragments make it to the ground. So, for example, the meteor which exploded in the atmosphere over Chelyabinsk in February of last year (2013) led to several fragments landing (as I discussed <a href="“>here), and these fragments are meteorites.

Not surprisingly, it is only the larger meteors which make it to the ground as meteorites, although precisely what size a meteor needs to be to make it to the ground as a meteorite depends on a number of things including the composition of the meteor, the angle at which it enters the Earth’s atmosphere and the speed at which it enters the Earth’s atmosphere.

As I’ve also mentioned before, there is now strong evidence that it was the impact of an asteroid (remember that is just the name we give to large meteoroids) which wiped out the dinosaurs and most of life on Earth some 70 million years ago. Although the statistics are very paltry and therefore unreliable, we believe the Earth gets hit by an asteroid large enough to cause a mass-extinction event about once every 150-250 million years. Although undoubtedly rare, such events are cataclysmic to life on Earth, and so it is not wasted money to spend time and resources looking for such large “near Earth” objects.

Meteor showers

There are many meteor showers during the course of each year, they occur when the Earth passes through some debris in its annual orbit about the Sun. This debris is often the material blown off of comets. Some of the better known meteor showers are

Some well-known meteor showers
Name of shower Month in which it occurs
Lyrids late April
Perseids mid August
Orionids late October
Leonids mid November
Geminids mid December



The naming convention is quite simple, they are named after the constellation from where the meteors appear to emanate. So, for example, the Perseids meteor shower in mid-August appears to radiate from the Perseus constellation, as this figure shows.



The Perseids meteor shower in mid-August appears to radiate from the Perseus constellation

The Perseids meteor shower in mid-August appears to radiate from the Perseus constellation



The best way to see a meteor shower is not to use a telescope or binoculars, but rather to just look up with your eyes. Although when traced back they appear to emanate from a particular part of the sky, they can appear anywhere and using a telescope or binoculars will restrict your field of view, leading to your possibly missing a meteor.

Lying on one’s back on the ground (or a rug or mat preferably; or reclining in e.g. a deck chair are very effective ways to view a meteor shower. But, be warned that if you are observing one in the winter months it will probably get pretty cold, so have some warm clothes and blankets with you, and a warm drink.

Also, meteor showers are best viewed after midnight. This is because after midnight your particular part of the Earth is facing in the direction of the Earth’s motion about the Sun, and so the meteoroids enter the atmosphere at a steeper angle with a higher speed, and are more numerous than earlier in the night. The image below shows a wonderful image of the Geminids meteor shower, taken in 2012.



A wonderful image of the Geminids meteor shower, which occurs each December.

A wonderful image of the Geminids meteor shower, which occurs each December.



Fireballs

If you are very lucky you may see an extremely bright meteor, which is called a “fireball”. I have never seen one, but I have a story of how much luck is involved in seeing one. One November, when I was working at Yerkes Observatory, we arranged a public viewing of the Leonids meteor shower. Several of us working at the Observatory were out for a few hours with members of the public, and we saw several dozen small meteors. But nothing spectacular. My boss had been in his office working all evening, not taking part in our public observing. He lived in George Ellery Hale’s old house (the Observatory’s “Director’s House”), which was all of 2 minutes walk from the Observatory, and at about 9pm he popped home for a break from his work. As he walked the 150 metres or so to the house, he saw a great big fireball streaking across the sky, and the rest of us all missed it as we were inside warming up with a hot drink!



A fireball streaking across the sky

A fireball streaking across the sky



The Perseids meteor shower is in mid-August, and is one of the most popular meteor showers as it occurs during the Northern Hemisphere summer when many people are on their summer holidays and away from city lights. If you get a chance to observe it this year, I highly recommend it, but bear in mind that you do need to be in a dark place. Most meteors are quite faint, and you will miss all but the brightest ones if you are in a city.

Which is the most spectacular meteor shower you have seen? Have you ever seen a fireball?

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