Frequently Asked Questions About Meteors


1.   What are meteors?

Meteors are bright flashes of light caused by the ionization of the crust of a meteoroid that entered Earth’s atmosphere. They are also known as shooting stars.

2.   What does a meteor look like?

Meteors look like fiery bright balls – to the naked eye, at least. They have the very bright nucleus and a tail that shines behind the nucleus. The appearance is what caused people to start calling them shooting stars.

3.   Is meteor the same as a meteorite?

Yes and no. Meteorites and meteors (and meteoroids as well) are three names for the same extraterrestrial object that entered our atmosphere. The terms depend on the location of the object. While it is in space, it is called a meteoroid. Once it enters our atmosphere, it becomes a meteor that burns brightly. Rare meteors that do not vaporize completely in the air can land to Earth’s surface. The objects found on the ground are called meteorites.

4.   How big can they get?

This all depends on the type and chemical composition of the meteoroid before it enters the atmosphere. The first thing that we need to explain is that meteoroids are described as objects smaller than asteroids. They can get up to 1km in diameter. That is officially the largest possible meteoroid, if it is bigger it is considered an asteroid. Nevertheless, they are often much smaller than 1km. Most meteors are the size of a pebble or a tennis ball.

5.   What causes a meteor?

Meteors are caused by the interception of meteor trajectory by Earth’s gravitational forces. All meteoroids orbit in space, but once the two orbits clash, a meteor crashes into Earth, i.e. its atmosphere.

6.   How high can they be?

Most meteors vaporize at a great height, as soon as they enter the atmosphere. The usual altitude is around 90 km.

7.   Can they reach the ground?

The general answer is no. However, there are instances of meteors hitting the Earth and leaving a crater. This happens when the meteor is so large that it cannot vaporize completely in the atmosphere.

8.   How often do meteors occur?

There are no firm facts about this, but scientists believe that up to 50 meteors hit Earth each day. We are unable to witness and observe all that because 2/3 of Earth is covered with water. Hence, most meteors happen above vast unchartered water surfaces, i.e. oceans. Only one third happens above land, and when we take into consideration the scope of unexplored areas, we might catch only 5-10 events per day. Plus, there are periods during the year when we can expect prolific meteor showers.

9.   Are showers dangerous?

They are not. Meteor showers are very interesting events that captivate observers around the world. They are very elusive, and astronomers need data and elaborate mathematical calculations to predict potential upcoming showers. However, they are completely harmless as all meteors are very small particles that vaporize instantly upon entering the atmosphere.

10. What is Leonid?

Leonids are the most famous instance of meteor showers. They occur in November. Leonids usually provide a very prolific meteor shower that can even result in a meteor storm. Major Leonid outbursts are expected every 33 years, but small-scale events still occur each year.

11. I think I just spotted a meteor just above my head. Is this possible?

Calculating distance is a tricky business while you are observing meteors. The most probable explanation for this is that it is an optical illusion. You cannot determine precisely how far the object is compared to you.

12. When is the best time to observe meteors?

This depends if there is an on-going meteor shower or no. If there is a shower, you will be able to see many meteors no matter the time – during the night, of course. If there is no shower, astronomers suggest the best time for meteor observation to be after midnight, until 6 AM. Perfect observation conditions include a clear night sky, and some good equipment if you want.

13. Where is the best location for meteor observation?

As we already mentioned above, meteors hit Earth regularly. The only problem is that we cannot determine the location of the meteor in advance. That slightly changes during meteor showers. When a shower begins, you can track where it will be most visible and plan your observation accordingly.

14. Do I need any equipment?

You do not need any equipment. However, if you want to document the event, bring a camera that can shoot the “shooting stars”.

15. What type of telescope do I need?

This depends on the level of astronomical proficiency. If you are an amateur observer who just wants to watch meteors, you do not need telescopes. If, however, you wish to experience the event more closely, you can acquire a telescope. In any case, this type of equipment is not necessary at all.