Space Rocks and Shooting Stars
There are various terms for the chunks of space rock that soar through our solar system. To many of us casually observing or learning about them, they can appear to be quite similar in nature and function. However, to the scientists that study and research them, there are distinct differences between comets, meteors, asteroids, and other types of solar debris.
What is a comet?
Comets are made up primarily of ice and dust. These “dirty snowballs,” as they are often referred to, can zip around the solar system with a long tail. The tail is formed as a result of the heat that radiates from the sun. As the ball of ice approaches the sun, it vaporizes and releases gas, forming a long tail that picks up other particles. The gravitational force of the sun or other objects can keep them in orbit for months or years.
What is a meteor?
A particle of space rock, in its most simple form, is known as a meteoroid. These are typically relatively small objectives. They can be as large as a meter in diameter or as tiny as a grain of sand. Occasionally, these objects get sucked into the earth’s gravitational pull if they come close to our planet. Once a meteoroid enters the earth’s atmosphere and proceeds to burn up, it is then referred to as a meteor.
Scientists estimate that the earth sees as many as 25 million meteors every single day. This constitutes more than 100 metric tons of rock skyrocketing into our atmosphere daily. Thankfully, most meteoroids will burn up upon entering the atmosphere. While these create beautiful visual moments, the consequences can be devastating if the meteor makes its way to land. If the meteor actually lands on the surface of the earth, it is then known as a meteorite. Shockingly, meteorites are not uncommon occurrences. In fact, about 17 meteors hit land on earth every day! Most land in uninhabited areas and go largely unnoticed. Fewer than 10 meteorites are actually recoverable for further examination.
What is a meteor shower?
Meteoroids often exist in clouds of dust that are suspended in space. As the earth moves through these clouds during its rotation around the sun, it’s possible to see many meteor sightings during a single occurrence. This is referred to as a meteor shower. Such events typically take place in a single location in the sky around the same time each year. Due to the regular occurrences, observers have assigned names to meteor showers based on the constellations that appear among them. For example, the Perseids shower (named after the Perseus constellation) is most visible in July or August.
What is an asteroid?
Like meteoroids, asteroids are also considered space rock. The difference is size and rotation. A floating mass in space that is between a meteoroid and a planet in size is considered to be an asteroid. These objects also orbit the sun and can be thought of as minor planets. Most asteroids can be found in the asteroid belt, which is located between Mars and Jupiter. Although they may resemble a moon in size and shape, they are not defined as moons given that they orbit the sun, not other planets.
What is a shooting star?
In essence, a shooting star is just a more romantic term for a meteor, comet, or asteroid falling through the Earth's atmsophere. For those of us lucky enough to witness space rock entering the earth’s atmosphere, it can appear to be a star leaving a bright streak across the sky. The streak is actually a tail formed by the resistance (or friction) of the air in our sky. As the space rock enters the earth, it heats up and emits a tail of glowing hot air. Without this glow, we wouldn’t be able to see it with our naked eyes. As it moves closer to earth, the tail glows brighter until the friction crumbles the rock into oblivion, therefore making what we call a shooting star.
What does a shooting star symbolize?
The spiritual symbolism of a shooting star dates back to ancient times. The ancient Greeks considered shooting stars to be tears shed from gods and goddesses as they mourned. Similarly, the ancient Egyptians thought that these meteors were messages from the deceased. If they looked up at just the right moment to witness the phenomenon, that signaled that someone was trying to reach them from the afterlife.
In many cultural traditions, it’s common to make a wish when seeing a shooting star. The origin of this tradition is debatable. Some cultures believe that shooting stars are sent from a higher power, and a wish essentially acts like a prayer as a means to connect with God or a deity. Other legends maintain that shooting stars were remnants from gods as they looked down toward earth. If you saw one, you knew that you had an audience with a god, so your wish would likely be heard and granted.
Some traditions see shooting stars as warning signs. Because they are uncommon, witnessing them could signal impending doom or destruction in one’s own life. In some cultures, these meteors represent demons falling from the heavens, and the very act of pointing at them in the sky could spell harm for you and your family.
For most people, however, seeing a shooting star is a happy, pleasant occurrence. Many believe it signals good luck and fortune. It’s such a rare occurrence, that those who witness it are fortunate enough to do so. And, as a result, good things will come to them. On good days, a shooting star could also prove to be a positive omen or signal to continue down a certain path. It’s a signal of prosperity and can prove to be a positive force for people who need reassurance from the universe.
Today, in modern times, making a wish upon a shooting star has become a superstition of sorts — like making a wish before blowing out candles on a birthday cake or breaking a wishbone with a friend. Your wish may not come true, but why not take a chance if you have the opportunity?
Check out other articles from our blog for more astronomy and star facts.