Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket
Never let it fade away
Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket
Save it for a rainy day
– written by Paul Vance and Lee Pockriss, sung by Perry Como
Somewhere lurking in the Solar System are thick swarms of meteoroids, and when the Earth plows through them like bugs on a windshield, they burn up in our atmosphere as meteor. And if you’re lucky enough, you might pick up a piece on the ground as a meteorite, or put one in your pocket that you buy from a reputable vendor.
This week our Earth is in the part of its trip around the Sun where it encounters such a swarm of meteoroids that appear to be the remnants of Comet Tempel-Tuttle. Friday night/Saturday morning (Nov. 17/18) we are in the thickest part of the debris stream circling the Earth and “shooting stars” will be plenty—up to 60 an hour at peak. Like snowflakes hitting a car windshield, the meteors seem to be traced back to one point in the sky, and this meteor shower comes out of the constellation Leo the Lion, and thus the Leonid Meteor Shower.
But this meteor “radiant” is just an illusion caused by the direction Earth is circling the Sun in our 600-million-mile celestial racetrack. Like snowflakes or raindrops in the headlights of a car, the meteors seem to be coming out of a focal point ahead. Meteor showers are named after the constellation where the “radiant” of a meteor shower appears to come from.
The Leonid meteor shower in mid-November is one of the big three of the year, the other two being the Geminid shower in late December and the Perseid shower in mid-August. The Perseid Meteor Shower is the most famous because of the summertime date. But the Geminid and Leonid showers consistently outperform the Perseids in meteors per hour. The Geminids are the strongest shower of the year at 50-60 meteors an hour, but the peak is the few days before Christmas and people are too busy to look up.
While the top three meteor showers all produce more than 30 meteors an hour at their peak, there are several meteor showers each month, with 5-10 meteors an hour. Many of these are worth watching as the hours of their peak can have some dramatic meteors. And it is always best to see meteors after midnight until dawn as that part of Earth is facing into cosmic debris.
The upcoming Leonid shower is the one that turns into a meteor storm every 33 years, the last time in 1999 when dozens of meteors a minute—a thousand an hour—fell to Earth just like in 1966 and 1933. That’s because we went through the thickest part of the comet debris. Mark your calendars for the 2032 Leonid Meteor Storm!
Every night there are stray meteors that unpredictably cut the night. These are just meteoroid interlopers traveling around the Solar System, minding their own business until the Earth sweeps them up. The best times to see meteors are in moonless skies and after midnight when our part of Earth is facing forward in our solar orbit—like looking out the front of a car instead of the back.
Incredibly, each day more than 10 tons—20,000 pounds—of cosmic debris lands on the Earth! The void of space is filled with billions of tiny objects the size of salt or sand grains and more billions and billions of micro-meteoroids invisible like dust. On the Moon during billions of years, the micro-meteoroids have beat down the mountains and created a fluffy soil called “regolith” that can be a foot or more thick like snow.
Earth’s atmosphere is responsible for the light show of shooting stars we see. With a meteoroid typically traveling 30,000 mph, when the sand grain-sized objects hits the dense atmosphere, friction burns it up at 5,000 degrees F. and we see light. We call our media weather forecasters meteorologists because the ancient Greeks thought the stones from space were part of our atmosphere, their word “meteron” meaning “of the air.”
Though rare, larger meteoroids an inch or more might survive the quick dash through our atmosphere and make it to the ground, and we call them meteorites. And they can look just like regular earthly rocks. So how do you know if you have a meteor right or a meteor wrong.
There are several meteor types of meteorites made from iron and combinations of stone and metal. So, the first test is a magnet, and if a stone clings to it chances are you have a meteorite. But any science center can help confirm or discount whether you have a rock from space.
Meteorites are very affordable and are sold for $5-15 per gram. There are many reputable dealers, but if you go to an Internet auction or personal vendor, buyer beware. Of course, like antique baseball cards, there are some meteorites that are more desirable than others for their fame or location where found. There are also meteorites ejected from the Moon, Mars and asteroids!
Meteoroids are much smaller than asteroids, but that distinction is a technical one as plenty of rocky bodies the size of football fields are found whizzing around Earth. And an asteroid a few miles across could cause widespread devastation. Just look at the Moon and every solid body in the Solar System—intensely peppered with impacts from asteroids and meteorites. So, it is just a matter time until Earth gets hit by a large, catastrophic piece of cosmic debris.
Until then, enjoy the upcoming Leonid and Geminid meteor showers. And keep hoping Earth dodges the Big One!