“That’s why I enjoy taking myself out of my own element, my own comfort zone, and hurling myself out into the unknown. Because it’s during those scary moments, those unsure steps taken, that I am able to see that I’m like a comet hitting a new atmosphere: suddenly I illuminate magnificently and fire dusts begin to fall off of me… I’m a shooting star. A meteor shower. But I’m not going to die out. I guess I’m more like a comet then. I’m just going to keep on coming back.” –C. JoyBell C.
Here in the Solar System, meteor showers are one of the things we take for granted on Earth. In particular, the Perseids is peaking in just a few weeks. The most reliable shower year after year, spectacular streaks of light illuminate the night sky. Over a period of many hours, it’s not uncommon for hundreds of meteors to delight skywatchers on a moonless night.
A single point in the sky — just below the famed “W” in the constellation of Cassiopeia — is where all the Perseid meteors seem to emanate from. Although this one particular point is unique to the Perseids…
…each meteor shower of the year has its own unique point-of-origin.
Often called shooting stars or falling stars, these bright flashes of light aren’t stars at all. Rather, a small piece of space debris — usually a minuscule rock known as a meteoroid — smacks into the Earth’s atmosphere at a fantastic speed, somewhere in excess of 20,000 meters-per-second, or around 40,000 mph.
When we think of rocks in space, we normally think of giant asteroids, capable of leaving humongous craters on Earth, or even doing something catastrophic, like wiping out the dinosaurs. But when it comes to meteor showers, nothing could be further from the truth. The only thing meteor showers have in common with asteroids is that they’re only created when asteroids or comets — ice-and-rock rich bodies from the Solar System far beyond Earth — venture into our neck of the woods!
In the case of the Perseids, it’s Comet Swift-Tuttle, a periodic comet that swings by every 133 years, that’s the culprit. When a comet (or asteroid) swings too close to the Sun, the radiation from the Sun causes some of the ices to melt, creating the spectacular and characteristic comet tails that have delighted skywatchers since the dawn of humanity.
In fact, you might think that these tails would leave a “ring” of debris after enough passes, something that perhaps the Earth would pass through, creating these meteor showers.
If that’s what you think, you’re partially right. Comets (and asteroids) that swing close by the Sun do develop tails, they do leave rings of debris scattered along their orbital path, and when the Earth passes through that debris, that is, in fact, what creates meteor showers.
So you got that part right.
And if you take the right astrophoto at the right time, you just might find a Perseid streaking by the Andromeda galaxy, which lies very close to the origin point of the Perseids in our night sky.
The vast majority of the shooting stars you see during a meteor shower aren’t from rocks, or even pebbles. Are you thinking more like a grain-of-sand? That’s still way too big! These great fireballs that often streak for hundreds of miles across the sky? They come from meteoroids about the size of a single dust mote.
That’s right, each streak of light that happens during a meteor shower comes from about a microgram‘s worth of material striking the atmosphere. Think that’s too little? Remember, the energy that something has might be directly proportional to its mass, but it’s also proportional to its velocity squared. A microgram might be a tiny, tiny amount for a mass, but 40,000+ mph squared more than makes up for it!
They all have their origin from space, which — believe it or not — we’ve actually photographed!
But there was a part you got wrong: the comet’s tails don’t have anything at all to do with the meteor showers you see.
In fact, comets can have — from our point of view — up to three tails!
There’s the ion tail, which you can see in blue. This tail always points directly away from the Sun, and is made of ionized gas. Because it’s ionized, it’s strongly affected by the Solar Wind, and the Sun’s magnetic field. It’s called the ion tail because the light it emits is due to its ionization.
There’s also the dust tail, which is more diffuse and in white, above. Shining in reflected sunlight, this is, in fact, made up of tiny micrometeoroids. Unfortunately, this doesn’t leave a trail in the orbit of the comet, but rather in a curved path away from its elliptical orbit!
There’s also, sometimes, an antitail, which looks like it trails behind the comet as seen from Earth.
Could this be the culprit in creating our meteor showers?
Not quite. This is just a trick of perspective: as a comet moves away from the Sun, its curved dust tail suddenly seems to lag behind the comet, creating an anti-tail from our point of view. In reality, this antitail is even farther out in the orbit than the normal tail of the comet.
It’s none of these three tails that explain where our meteor showers come from. They all result in particles that are much more diffuse, and that aren’t concentrated in a ring along the comet’s orbital path.
Instead, when comets (or asteroids) pass too close to a massive body (like the Sun) or get too hot (like, from the Sun), they tend to break up. It might only be by a little bit, it might just be a tiny chunk here-or-there that breaks off. But when that happens, there will be a slew of tiny particles that come off — some a little faster, some a little slower — that, over enough time and enough orbits, can create that ring of micrometeoroids we know must exist.
The Spitzer Space Telescope, ideal for viewing infrared dust, captures this line of debris that traces out a comet’s orbit beautifully! And whenever the Earth, hurtling furiously through space in its neverending race-around-the-Sun, passes through that trail of debris, that’s when we get a meteor shower!
Of course, we’re not even the only planet that gets one, check out this image, of the first meteor ever photographed on Mars, courtesy of the now-defunct Spirit rover!
And the best part? Pretty much every planet in every Solar System should have these!
And that’s where meteor showers come from. The next time you see a shooting star, remember exactly what you’re looking at: comet dust from broken-apart fragments that have spread out millions of miles throughout space, no bigger than a microgram in size, colliding into our atmosphere at tens of thousands of miles-per-hour, just to deliver a momentary flash of light as they burn up! That’s what a meteor shower is.