Hey, Sky Watchers!
Today is a great day to keep your head up once the sun goes down—it’s Meteor Watch Day! It’s enthralling to see a speedy burst of light zip its way across the night sky! Also known as a shooting star, a meteor is often shrouded in some confusion and mystery. What are these brilliant trails of zooming light? Countless stars populate our night sky, but, aside from a little twinkling, most of them appear to sit pretty still, not sail across the sky in a fiery streak. What sets a shooting star apart from other stars?
I figured Meteor Watch Day is a wise time to explain just what a meteor is. Meteors are often confused with meteoroids, meteorites, asteroids, and comets, so, in order to explain what they are, let’s take a look at what they aren’t. First and foremost, they are certainly not wandering stars. Here’s the breakdown and differences among space rocks.
First of all, we have asteroids. These are space rocks that vary greatly in size. Some are the size of a very small planet while others are smaller than your bedroom. The asteroid belt found between the orbit of Jupiter and Mars was supposedly once a planet that couldn’t keep itself together under the extreme stress of Jupiter’s gravity!
Comets are basically the same as asteroids except that instead of being made completely of rock, they’re made of other ingredients as well like ice, methane, and ammonia. These chemically active ingredients can create a tiny atmosphere around the comet and give it a cool tail effect.
Meteoroids are small pieces of asteroids or comets. Some might be the size of a large boulder. Most are as small as a pebble.
Sometimes when a meteoroid gets too close to a planet, it will quit its orbit around the sun and fall into the nearby planet instead. Every few million years or so, an asteroid or comet might do the same resulting in what happened about 66 million years ago when the dinosaurs went extinct. Not to worry, though—as mentioned above, meteoroids are typically the size of a pebble. If they’re big enough, however, that they can survive the hot trip through the earth’s atmosphere and land on the planet’s surface as a meteorite.
Most meteoroids don’t survive the trip through earth’s atmosphere and they burn up leaving a bright trail behind them. The word meteor, or a shooting star, refers to the red-hot, trailing glow of space rocks in our atmosphere.
If you’re still confused about what constitutes a meteorite and a meteoroid, perhaps you’ll find the diagram to the left helpful. Check out the video below to learn even more and be sure to keep your eyes on the skies tonight. As always, thanks for reading!