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The Source of Shooting Stars

As finals come to a close and winter break begins, I’m sure plenty of people will look for what to do with their newfound free time. And if you aren’t spending the night after finals recovering from all those all-nighters, you can go see the spectacular Geminids meteor shower the night of the 13th.

Although the Geminids technically run from December 7th through 17th, they are at their peak the night of the 13th through to the early morning of the 14th, reaching a maximum of up to 120 meteors per hour. Due to the moon only being at its fourth quarter that night, if you’re able to go somewhere dark and are willing to stay up past midnight to watch it, you’ll be in for quite a show.

But what is the cause of such a beautiful astral phenomenon? While meteors are often called ‘shooting stars,’ this name couldn’t be further from the truth. Meteor showers are actually made up of tiny, dust sized pieces of debris from comets, which burn up as they fall through Earth’s atmosphere, creating the fiery trails of light that are what we see when we watch a meteor shower.

However, the earth isn’t passing by a comet each time a meteor shower occurs. While comets orbit the sun like planets do, their orbits are shaped more like an oval than a circle, and they often spend hundreds or even thousands of years out even beyond Pluto before returning to pass by the sun. The reason meteor showers occur regularly and the same showers occur each year is because the Earth is passing through the icy, dusty remains of the comets that were left many years ago.

However, not quite all meteors come from comets. For example, the Geminids are actually from the remains of the asteroid 3200 Phaethon. This makes them and the Quadrantids, which originate from the asteroid 2003 EH1, the only major meteor showers that don’t originate from a comet.

The trail of the comet will always come into contact with the same region of the sky each time the Earth passes through it, so the meteors will generally originate from that location. As such, most of the meteors will radiate out from near a certain constellation. This is how meteor showers get their names. The Geminids come from Gemini, the Ursids come from Ursa Minor, the Perseids come from Perseus, etc. As such, when watching meteor showers, it’s best to look at the corresponding constellation, though the meteors can come from anywhere in the sky.

As the earth passes through these comet trails, the tiny remains from the comets will pass through the atmosphere, moving at tens of thousands of miles per hour. The friction of moving that fast past the gasses in the atmosphere causes them to catch fire, creating the bright flashes of light we see during a meteor shower. Thankfully, most of them stay 30-80 miles above ground, so there’s next to no risk of being hit by one. The few that do make it to earth are called meteorites.

While the Geminids are the next meteors to arrive, there will be plenty more meteor showers to watch after them, starting with the Ursids December 17 through 25, though they aren’t nearly as magnificent as the Geminids. If you’re interested in watching meteor showers, remember that the best viewing times are extremely late at night into the early morning, to go as far away from bright city lights as possible, and bring a blanket, because it’s getting to be pretty cold out.

2 comments

  1. Great article, and don’t forget – right now we have the Comet Wirtanen near the constellation Taurus. It will be closest to Earth this weekend and you can see it with your own eyes out in the country. Around here you can see it too – with any pair of binoculars the comet reveals itself as a round diffuse ‘cloudy’ apparition now larger than the full moon. I mean it’s HUGE. Check out the Alpheus Smith Observatory on campus, maybe they’ll have viewing sessions at their telescope. Good luck and ENJOY.

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