What are shooting stars?

Ana Escorza Santos · 15-10-2020 10:00 · CEBE answers

Contrary to what their name seems to indicate, shooting stars have nothing to do with stars. These astronomical phenomena occur when small particles of dust or rock enter the Earth's atmosphere and burn and disintegrate due to the friction they suffer. These particles are debris that different comets (celestial bodies made of ice, dust and rocks) leave behind as they travel through the solar system and that the earth encounters in its orbit around the Sun.

While these particles float in space they are called meteoroids, but when they enter the atmosphere and heat up, they begin to disintegrate and ionize the gas around them leaving behind glowing vapor trails that are technically called meteors, but are commonly known as shooting stars. If part of one of these rocks survives and impacts on the earth's surface, it is no longer called a shooting star, but a meteorite. Yes, we use different terms to refer to the same object depending on where we observe it.

At specific times of the year, you are more likely to see many shooting stars in the sky at once, events that we know as meteor showers. Traditionally, these showers are named after the constellation that at that time of the year occupies the area of the sky from which the shooting stars seem to come. The most famous examples are the Perseids, a meteor shower that occurs in August and seems to originate in the constellation of Perseus, or the Leonids, a meteor shower visible in November and that appears to have its origin in the constellation Leo.

It is important to make clear that meteor showers do not come from or are related to the constellations that give them their name. They are simply so called because at a specific time of year, the Earth crosses the remains of rock and dust that a comet has left behind, and these particles enter our atmosphere through the area of the sky that the corresponding constellations occupy.

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