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What Makes a Shooting Star?

July 7, 2008 on 11:28 am | In Astronomy |

After a one week hiatus due to the big move, Starts With A Bang! is back and, hopefully, better than ever. I will be scaling back posts to three times a week (Monday, Wednesday, and Friday) plus the bonus ones on the weekend to focus on producing higher quality articles for you, my dear reader.

Let’s kick it off by talking about one of the most spectacular sights the night sky has to offer: shooting stars. My first exposure to them was in a Sesame Street song; I didn’t see my first one in person until I was 11.

They fly across the sky, as bright as stars, but only for a fraction of a second. Then, they flare out of existence. But what are they?

It turns out they aren’t stars at all! Tiny rocks and grains of dust live in the zone where the Earth orbits; many of them were put there by comets. They are known as meteoroids. When the Earth passes close enough to them, they enter the atmosphere, and that’s when the fun begins. Even though these tiny rocks can be as small as 1/200 of an inch, they move very quickly through the atmosphere, often in excess of 40 miles per second. The meteoroid fragments and vaporizes in the Earth’s atmosphere, and then the vaporized atoms collide with the atmospheric atoms, producing the brilliant light signature that we call either shooting stars or meteors.

A lot of the time, this happens sporadically; a single dust grain or rock will enter the atmosphere. But sometimes there are huge trails of dust or rock, such as when the Earth passes through the space where a comet previously went. This gives us hundreds of thousands of grains that can hit the Earth’s atmosphere, producing a meteor shower. The next one coming up is in the early morning (before sunrise) of August 12th, called the Perseid meteor shower.

But what about actual stars? Can they ever get shot across the sky? The answer is yes, because we found one! It’s called Mira, and it has a trail of gas and dust behind it that’s 13 light-years long! We have no idea why, but relative to the stars around it, Mira moves with a speed of over 80 miles per second (130 km/s), and leaves a giant trail that you can see here:

The Universe is one amazing place, isn’t it?

Update: There is an alternative explanation up for shooting stars that is a lot more fun than mine is; check it out if you’ve got some time to waste.


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  1. Eleven! That’s what you get for growing up in NYC. I hadn’t heard of Mira. Thanks for sharing.

    Comment by Brian — July 7, 2008 #

  2. Thanks for posting this Ethan! Its really interesting. I also hadn’t heard of Mira, its new great information for me. Can’t wait to share it with friends :)

    Comment by Zrinka — July 8, 2008 #

  3. welcome back, I hope you handled the move well. Nice article, my kids and I always look for shooting stars, but they are hard to come by living right outside of Chicago… I have to say I’m a little dissapointed that your are only posting 3 times a week, I am always looking forward to your stories and now it wont be every day. what am I to do……

    Comment by dan w. — July 8, 2008 #

  4. […] What Makes a Shooting Star? | Starts With A Bang! […]

    Pingback by The Daily Links - July 8th « The Four Part Land — July 8, 2008 #

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  6. Glad to tell you all a little bit about Mira. The move went pretty smoothly; we’re both still finishing getting settled and getting acquainted with our new city.
    I’m sorry that I no longer have the time to post every day; hopefully you’ll still be pleased with what I can deliver to you!

    Comment by ethan — July 8, 2008 #

  7. wats up you dummy

    Comment by micheal — September 15, 2008 #

  8. […] speeds it moves at causes it to burn up and flare across the sky. This causes something known as a shooting star, or if there are lots of them, a meteor shower. They all seem to come from one point in the sky; […]

    Pingback by Go Outside Tonight! | Starts With A Bang! — October 22, 2008 #

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  10. Isai,

    It’s the internet. Under the “fair use act”, I believe you can legally use anything you find, with or without permission.

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  17. im not sure if i saw a shooting star or meteriod,or even a asteriod please help me!!!

    Comment by kyky — November 21, 2009 #

  18. […] week to the next, barely noticing the passing of time. Life was flashing in front of our eyes like shooting stars. You would try to focus on something and by the time you would get there it was too late, it was […]

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