Shooting Stars

Myths, Meteors, Meteoroids, and More.

What are shooting stars?

Shooting stars are not actually stars at all, in fact they are meteors. They are more commonly known for the streaks of light produced when a meteoroid burns up in the earth's atmosphere. It looks like a star falling towards us as it momentarily flashes above us and this is where the name "shooting stars" come from.
The factors that determine the luminosity (brightness) of a meteor are the size, speed, mass and structure of the meteoroid's material. Large meteoroids, that produce longer meteors reaching a magnitude of -10, are called fireballs. Tens of thousands of them fall to Earth each year, around five thousand of which break up and explode. Such explosive meteors are called bolides. Meteors are either sporadic (a singular meteor) or part of a shower (this is when meteors occur regularly at a predicted date and time, coming from the same region of the sky, annually).

How are shooting stars formed?

A shooting star begins as a meteoroid, as it breaks into smaller dust particles the attraction of the gravitational pull the dust into earth. As the Earth moves along its orbital path, meteoroids hit the upper atmosphere and proceed towards Earth's surface quickly. Once in the atmosphere, friction between the meteoroid and air molecules often produces the brief trail of light known as a shooting star.

Sizes of a meteor vs shooting star

Most meteors are usually 1m across and 20m long, and have a cylinder of atoms and molecules. They are normally seen between 120 and 80km above Earth's surface. However, for a meteor to be considered a shooting star, it needs only a mass of one millionth of a gram, but needs to be travelling at a very high speed: anywhere between 11 and 74km/sec (up to 100 times faster than a rifle bullet).

When is the best time to see a shooting star?

The best time to see a shooting star is at midnight or late evening. This is because at this point in time, earth is turning into the path of meteoroids as they enter earth's atmosphere. The best day in the year to watch a meteor shower, is August 12th.

Where to see a shooting star?

The best place to see a shooting star is out in the country side where there is no light pollution. Light pollution is where excessive, misdirected, or obtrusive artificial light is present. By going into the countryside, one can ensure that there is little to no light pollution.This will allow you to see several more shooting stars than in the city, where you may only be able to see the brightest shooting stars in the city.

Why do we wish on a shooting star?

Since shooting stars are linked to beauty, rarity, and humanity's eternal fascination with the heavens, shooting stars have been associated since ancient times with divine powers. Even today, some people associate shooting stars with angels, so wishing on a star may be an offering or a prayer. Because shooting stars are so rare to see due to modern day pollution, the "stars" will come and go very quickly. This creates a challenge to wish because they disappear almost as soon as one can see them. Therefore, it is difficult to wish on the shooting star and this makes wishing on one to make sure the wish comes true.


Myths

  • Greeks believed that if you find a shooting star, it would bring you a years worth of good luck and one wish, which is where the myth of wishing on a shooting star started.
  • Native Americans used to wear them as amulets to symbolize power.
  • In the Teutonic mythology of central Europe, it was believed that every person was represented by a star which was attached to the ceiling of the sky by the threads of fate. When Fate ended your story on earth, she would snip the thread attaching your star and it would fall, presaging your death.

  • In the Philippines, one must tie a knot in a kerchief before the meteor passes.

  • In Chile, one must pick up a stone when seeing a meteor.

  • In Switzerland, a meteor possess the power of God.


Reality

Shooting stars come from comets and asteroids. Upon coming close to the Sun, comets lose dust, while asteroids lose fragments if they collide together. As the Earth moves along its orbit, meteoroids hit the upper atmosphere and hurtle towards Earth's surface. Once in the atmosphere, friction between the meteoroid and the air molecules often produce the small trail of light that we call a meteor. Most meteorites are 1m by 2om, and they consist of a cylinder of excited atoms and molecules. They are normally seen between 120km and 80km above Earth's surface.

Fun facts about shooting stars

1. The best time to see a meteor shower is August 12th

2. Best to see after midnight

3. Can’t see them with all the pollution in cities

4. A large group of shootings stars that fall at one time are called a meteor shower

5. Shooting stars travel at an extremely fast rate


The Science of Shooting Stars

By: Erin Chau and Kate Wallace