What's a shooting star? Relax. You're not the only one confused.

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A meteor streaking arsenic it hits Earth's atmosphere

From low-Earth orbit successful space, an astronaut captures a "shooting star," aka a meteor hitting Earth's atmosphere. Credit: NASA / JSC / D. Pettit

an asteroid illustration pinch nan matter "Space Rocks"

A Mashable series astir nan funny abstraction rocks hurtling done our star system, and really humanity is connected nan lookout for caller ones.


On a clear nighttime distant from nan haze of metropolis lights, you whitethorn person had nan luck of seeing a dash of ray zip crossed nan sky, gone arsenic quickly arsenic it arrived.

For centuries, group person referred to this arsenic a "shooting star," yet nan phenomenon, besides sometimes called a "falling star," is not a prima astatine all.

What you're seeing is simply a meteor that could beryllium arsenic mini arsenic a pebble aliases grit of soil that has flown done space and smacked into Earth's atmosphere. The ephemeral streak is simply a stone moving truthful accelerated — an mean of 45,000 mph(opens successful a caller tab), according to NASA — that it blazes arsenic it bombards nan aerial surrounding nan planet. Usually, meteors pain up earlier they ever touch nan ground.

But let's put a pin successful that for a moment. To afloat grasp what a meteor is, it's adjuvant to cognize what it isn't. There are galore kinds of space rocks, and the terms(opens successful a caller tab) tin beryllium downright confusing.

In short: "Asteroids are rocky, comets are icy, and meteors are overmuch smaller and are nan shooting stars that you spot up successful nan sky," said Ryan Park, a near-Earth asteroid expert(opens successful a caller tab), successful a NASA video.

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Difference betwixt asteroids, meteors, and comets

Think of an asteroid arsenic a large rocky entity — but smaller than a satellite — orbiting nan sun. Most are recovered in nan asteroid belt, a ringing of debris betwixt nan orbits of Mars and Jupiter. This rocky rubble is near complete from nan making of nan star strategy astir 4.6 cardinal years ago. They travel in different shapes, and immoderate moreover recreation pinch their ain circling moonlets.

Like an asteroid, a comet besides orbits nan sun, but it's a agleam shot of ice, dust, and rock that formed successful nan outer star system. When nan ancient soiled snowball approaches nan sun, its crystal starts to disintegrate. Sometimes shooting stars are confused for comets because they create a glowing streak, but nan millions-of-miles-long tail of a comet is its crystal and particulate vaporizing successful space.

Meteors, connected nan different hand, (or "meteoroids" arsenic astronomers sometimes telephone them while nan rocks are successful space), are mini chunks of asteroids, comets, aliases planets that usually collapsed disconnected during immoderate benignant of astronomical collision. Scientists estimate astir 48.5 tons of billions-of-years-old meteor worldly rainfall down connected Earth daily. Most of those abstraction rocks evaporate successful nan ambiance aliases autumn into nan ocean, which covers complete 70 percent of nan planet.

Those that past nan sadistic inferno of falling done nan ambiance — reaching around 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit(opens successful a caller tab) owed to aerial friction, according to nan American Museum of Natural History — are referred to arsenic meteorites.

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"Asteroids are rocky, comets are icy, and meteors are overmuch smaller and are nan shooting stars that you spot up successful nan sky."

More than 60,000 meteorites person been discovered connected Earth. The immense mostly travel from asteroids, but a mini sliver, about 0.2 percent(opens successful a caller tab), travel from Mars aliases nan moon, according to NASA. At slightest 175 person been identified arsenic originating from nan Red Planet. (And, successful lawsuit you were wondering, Mars gets its adjacent stock of meteorites, too.)

Curiosity rover discovering a meteorite connected Mars

The NASA Curiosity rover's protector casts a framework astir a recently discovered meteorite connected Mars. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS

Many abstraction rocks that made nan afloat travel to nan Earth's aboveground are found successful Antarctica because they're comparatively easier to spot connected nan immense stiff plains. The acheronian lumps guidelines retired against nan snowy-white landscape, and moreover erstwhile meteorites descend into nan ice, nan glaciers churning beneath thief to resurface nan rocks connected bluish crystal fields.

Despite nan amount of meteors pummeling nan satellite daily, these extraterrestrial sightings are rare(opens successful a caller tab), said Don Yeomans, a erstwhile planetary intelligence astatine NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, earlier retiring. Only half of nan world is successful acheronian astatine immoderate fixed time, and two-thirds of that is complete h2o wherever hardly anyone lives. Eliminate nan areas experiencing bad upwind conditions aliases municipality ray pollution, too.

"Few group are moreover looking up astatine nan due moment," he said successful a 2010 NASA feature. "When you put it each together, it's almost notable that anybody notices these meteors astatine all."

Scientists searching for meteorites successful Antarctica

An world squad of scientists scours an crystal section successful Antarctica for meteorites. Credit: Maria Valdes / Field Museum

The first eyewitnessed meteorite impact

The first-known meteor effect eyewitnessed and recorded was successful 1492. In immoderate history books and manuscripts, it was nan only awesome world arena mentioned for nan year. That's right: The alleged Ensisheim meteorite, named for nan municipality wherever it was discovered successful medieval times, upstaged Christopher Columbus' exploration.

It would return astir 300 much years aft respective different meteorite sightings successful Europe and nan United States successful nan early 1800s earlier scientists accepted that rocks were falling from space. Prior to that, they were mostly considered messages from angels aliases God.

On Nov. 7, 1492, a young boy saw nan meteorite arsenic it smashed into a wheat section and brought villagers to nan 280-pound achromatic stone. People 100 miles distant successful nan Alps heard nan roar of nan fireball (yes, different term, utilized to picture an highly agleam meteorite(opens successful a caller tab)). Twenty days later, Roman Emperor Maximilian I interpreted nan arena arsenic a motion from God to state warfare connected France.

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Over nan years, galore museums obtained pieces, and a ample magnitude went to nan Vatican. Some mini samples person besides ended up successful backstage collections done auctions, including 1 arsenic precocious arsenic this spring. The piece, nary bigger than a in installments card, sold successful a Christie's auction for $8,820. The bulk of nan meteorite remains successful Ensisheim.

"It's nan benignant of meteorite that if it was conscionable recovered connected its own, and didn't person that 500-year history down it, it wouldn't beryllium hugely sought after," James Hyslop of Christie's told Mashable.

To summation your likelihood of seeing a meteor, scheme a nighttime of stargazing during a meteor shower. These celestial events hap each year(opens successful a caller tab) aliases astatine regular intervals arsenic Earth passes done nan dusty aftermath of erstwhile comets. Each clip a comet zips done nan soul star system, nan sun boils disconnected immoderate of its surface, leaving down a way of debris. When nan satellite intersects pinch nan aged comet detritus, nan consequence is simply a spectacular show, pinch sometimes up to hundreds visible per hour.

A photographer watching a meteor shower

A "shooting star," aka a meteor, streaks crossed nan entity during nan Perseids meteor ablution successful 2016. Credit: NASA / Bill Ingalls

Major yearly meteor showers

Below are nan awesome meteor showers that repetition each year. How galore meteors stargazers will spot each clip depends connected upwind and nan shape of nan moon.

  • December — January: Quadrantids

  • April: Lyrids

  • August: Perseids

  • October: Orionids

  • November: Leonids

  • December: Geminids

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Elisha Sauers is nan abstraction and early tech newsman for Mashable, willing successful asteroids, astronauts, and astro nuts. In complete 15 years of reporting, she's covered a assortment of topics, including health, business, and government, pinch a penchant for FOIA and different nationalist records requests. She antecedently worked for The Virginian-Pilot successful Norfolk, Virginia, and The Capital successful Annapolis, Maryland, now known arsenic The Capital-Gazette. Her activity has earned galore authorities awards, including nan Virginia Press Association's apical honor, Best successful Show(opens successful a caller tab),  and national recognition(opens successful a caller tab) for communicative storytelling. In her first twelvemonth covering abstraction for Mashable, Sauers grabbed a National Headliner Award(opens successful a caller tab) for hit reporting. Send abstraction tips and communicative ideas to [email protected](opens successful a caller tab) aliases matter 443-684-2489. Follow her connected Twitter astatine @elishasauers(opens successful a caller tab).

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