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Meteor Showers

Imagine staring out at the night sky and suddenly seeing a burst of colorful star showers streaking across the sky in a dazzling display. Meteor showers are one of the events that are looked forward to by astrophiles from all over the world because of their beauty. Interested in finding out more about this?

Meteor showers are events seen from a planet's surface, where numerous meteors are seen within a short period of time radiating from roughly the same area of sky. Like most typical meteors streaking through the night sky, those which are part of a meteor shower tend to consist of small pieces of mineral. They're often smaller than a grain of sand, burning brightly up as they pass through the atmosphere.

Where do meteor showers come from?

We see many meteor showers at specific times of the year thanks to Earth's orbit, which takes us through dense patches of dust as we circle the Sun. These 'clouds' of dust motes and tiny grains of rock and ice are the debris shed by comets and asteroids that have crossed our path. Each time one of these large balls of rock and ice swings close to the Sun it loses a little more of its material in a stream of vapor, releasing the dust and grit trapped inside.

Since the majority of meteors seen in a meteor shower come from the same stream of particles, they all seem to rain down from one corner of the sky. The constellation that appears closest to where the meteor shower appears to be coming from when it's at its peak gives the annual event its name. Astronomers use the term Zenithal Hourly Rate (ZHR) to describe the peak density of meteors that can be observed in an hour under perfect conditions.

When can you see a meteor shower?

While meteor showers are a predictable part of the astronomical time table, nature isn't always on our side. Not only can clouds ruin a good viewing, but a bright Moon, or even the timing of the rising and setting of the meteor shower's celestial coordinates can make them hard to see. Variations in the density of the stream of dust we might happen to be passing through will also determine how many meteors we see each hour.

Can meteor showers do damage?

The vast majority of meteors burn up long before they hit the ground, posing no threat to property or people. Occasionally, a small amount of material survives entry into Earth's atmosphere and explodes above the planet's surface. If the material from a meteor falls to Earth, it's known as a meteorite. There are some reports each year of meteorites doing damage to property, and there has been one reported death due to a meteorite.v

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