Meteor showers

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 November, 2009, 12:00am

Sparkling sky

Sometimes when you stare into the night sky in the countryside, you may see a trail of light. It will travel quickly through the darkness and then disappear. This is called a meteor.

A large amount of this activity in one area of the sky is called a meteor shower. There are times when the whole sky will light up with many thousands of meteors. We call this a meteor storm.

Meteor showers are caused by grains of dust from space entering the earth's atmosphere. Most of these grains are smaller than a grain of sand. They quickly burn up as they hit the air that surrounds our planet - the atmosphere. They do not hit the ground. Meteors that hit the ground are called meteorites.

Comet dust

You can think of comets as tiny planets. Like our earth, they circle the sun. They are made of ice, rocks and dust. They can be tens of kilometres across. If one were to hit the earth, it might destroy civilisation.

When comets approach the sun, some of their ice begins to melt. The comet develops a tail. In the tail there are tiny stones and sand. If a comet is close enough to earth, its tail enters the atmosphere. If you are in the right place - far from city lights - you might see a meteor shower.

King of the light show

Meteor showers come at certain times of the year. This is because comets have regular orbits around the sun. The most famous is called the Leonids. The Leonids are meteors from the tail of a comet called Tempel Tuttle. They appear every November, so you might be able to see them this month.

Usually, the Leonids are most colourful on November 17. At their peak, there can be as many as 1,000 of them in the sky every hour. Every 33 years, the showers become storms. The most famous one was in 1833 - there were more than 100,000 meteors in the sky every hour. Some artists made drawings of them. Unfortunately, scientists do not think there will be another huge storm for a long time.

Most recent showers

There have been two meteor showers this month. The first was the Orionids. They began on October 2 and continued making small meteor showers until November 7. Usually, the showers are about 25 meteors an hour. But you cannot see them if there is a full moon or if you are close to city lights.

Early last month, the Draconids made small meteor showers of about 10 meteors an hour. The Draconids can also produce storms. In 1933, the Draconids threw more than 50,000 meteors an hour into the night sky.

now do this

1 Rocks from space that hit the ground are called ...

a. meteors

b. meteorites

c. comets

2 The big meteor attraction this month is the ...

a. Draconids

b. Leonids

c. Orionids

3 The Leonids are at their most active every ... years.

a. 33

b. 45

c. 1,500