Shooting stars are romantic, magical happenings that we feel lucky to catch a glimpse of when we're studying the night sky. Some see a shooting star as a sign that something special is about to happen. Others see it as a pretty show put on for us by nature. But what is a shooting star exactly?
First a shooting star isn't a star at all. It's actually an object like a rock, usually fairly small, passing through the Earth's atmosphere. It's pulled into the Earth by gravity. It's called a meteoroid and the trail of light created as it burns is called a meteor. What's left over and falls to Earth is called a meteorite.
Sometimes many meteoroids can be seen falling through the atmosphere at once. The beautiful show this creates is known as a meteor shower.
There are nine annual meteor showers. The Quadrantids occurs in January. The April Lyrids is in April. The Eta Aquarids is in May. There are two meteor showers in July, the Delta Aquarids and the Perseids. Orionids is in October and so is Taurids. Leonids is in November and Geminids is in December.
Many of these meteor showers are named from the star constellations from which they appear to come from, but they are not part of these constellations at all. A meteor shower happens when the Earth passes through the path of a comet, which loses dust and other particles as it passes near the sun.
If you want to see a meteor shower, start looking for information as the time for that particular shower draws near. Astronomers will be able to give information on the best times to spot these impressive sky shows.
Especially large, bright and substantial shooting stars are called fireballs. These happen when meteoroids are able to pass through the atmosphere without completely burning. These are the most likely to produce meteorites that fall down to Earth.
For the best chance of viewing a shooting star go out into an area where there are no or few city lights. Try to pick a night where the stars are visible and clear. If you wait long enough, you should be able to see a shooting star or two.
The universe is just full of beautiful things to see and to understand. Shooting stars may not really be stars, and they may not be magical, but they are still extraordinary in their own way.