IF YOU were in a dark location with a clear, star-strewn sky, you might get lucky and spot a “shooting star” or meteor. Your eyes have to be fast, though. Meteors come and go in the blink of an eye, which is why things that happen very fast are called “meteoric.”
There are moments, however, when many shooting stars can be seen in quick succession. Such events are called meteor showers, and they are among the easiest stargazing spectacles to enjoy. How do you watch a meteor shower? When and where?
Though sometimes called shooting stars, meteors are not stars. Rather, they are bits of material from outer space falling through the Earth’s atmosphere. As they fall, they rub against the atmosphere until they are so hot they glow.
Meteors vary in sizes from microscopic grains to about the size of a basketball court. Most meteors are the size of dust particles.
Before we go on to meteors, it helps to clarify some related terms. That is, what is the difference between a meteor, meteoroid, meteorite, asteroid, and comet?
Let’s start with the similar sounding ones first. To make recalling all this easier, let’s go through them in chronological order. When a bit of space dust is still in outer space, it is called a meteoroid. When it is already falling through the atmosphere, it is called a meteor. When it hits the ground, it is called a meteorite.
The story of space dust therefore goes from meteoroid, to meteor, to meteorite.
To remember what a meteoroid is, just remember that it rhymes with asteroid, and both are found in outer space.
To remember what a meteor is, just remember ‘meteor shower.’ No one calls it a ‘meteoroid shower’ or a ‘meteorite shower.’
To remember meteorite, just remember that names that end in -ite are usually the names of rocks or minerals. For example, granite is a kind of volcanic rock while stalactites and stalagmites are rocks found in caves.
Asteroids and comets are boulders in outer space. They can be as small as a two-bedroom house or as big as Luzon island.
Asteroids are mostly rock or metal while comets have lots of ice. When comets come close to the Sun, some of the ice melts, releasing gas and giving comets their tail.
Meteor showers exist because of comets. (The Geminids meteor shower is an exception. It happens because of an asteroid.)
When the ice in comets melt, they release bits of rocks along with gas. Comets leave behind a trail of rocks and dust in their wake. When the Earth passes through this wake of dust, we get a meteor shower.
Meteors that are part of a shower also come from the same part of the sky. Meteor showers are named after the constellation they seem to shoot out of.
The next major meteor shower is the Leonid meteor shower, named after the constellation Leo. They come from space dust left behind by Comet Temple-Tuttle.
This year, the shower will peak in the night between Nov. 17 and 18.
Another great meteor shower is the Geminid meteor shower, named after the constellation Gemini, which is near the easy-to-spot constellation Orion. They come from space dust left behind by the asteroid Phaethon.
This year, the shower will peak in the night between Dec. 14 and 15.
To watch a meteor shower, all you need is a dark sky (weather permitting). Even in a light polluted city, you will still be able to see the brightest meteors during a shower. However, you will see more when you are far from the city lights.
You do not need a telescope or binoculars to view a meteor shower. In fact, telescopes are useless when watching a meteor shower because they only let you see a very small part of the sky. To enjoy a meteor shower, you need to see as much of the sky as possible.
You do not even need to know the constellations! Although the meteors during a shower shoot out of a particular constellation, they will be seen throughout the entire sky.
Not all meteor showers are the same. This year, scientists predict around 10 to 15 meteors per hour during the Leonid meteor shower. Meanwhile, the Geminid meteor shower can produce up to 120 meteors per hour! There are rare years, however, when the Leonids beat the Geminids by producing 50,000 meteors per hour!
Meteor showers are lovely sights. Going out into a dark spot to view one can remind you not only of the grandeur of the universe. It can also remind you of the amazing fact that we, in many ways, are truly connected to that grandeur. It also reminds us of the beauty of knowing about it all.
Pecier Decierdo is resident physicist and astronomer of The Mind Museum.