What Is a Shooting Star?

Updated on May 18, 2018
Shooting stars are an astronomical phenomenon occurring when a small meteor passes through the earth's atmosphere. (Image adapted by Becki Rizzuti.)
Shooting stars are an astronomical phenomenon occurring when a small meteor passes through the earth's atmosphere. (Image adapted by Becki Rizzuti.) | Source
Shooting stars are meteoroids burning up as they pass through the earth's atmosphere.
Shooting stars are meteoroids burning up as they pass through the earth's atmosphere. | Source

Shooting Stars are Meteors

Shooting stars are small meteors which, passing through the earth's atmosphere, burn up, producing the bright light that we see in the sky.

Beautiful to look at, many people enjoy witnessing predicted meteor showers. Children often wish on these "falling stars" because of tales telling that wishes made on shooting stars will be granted.

Shooting stars are not, in fact, stars at all, and when visible to humans, they are already inside the earth's atmosphere. These meteors are much smaller than the stars we see in the sky. They only appear to be the same size because the stars are very far away and the meteors are so much closer.

A meteor is a piece of space debris (varying in size) which has entered the earth's atmosphere. "Shooting Stars" generally burn up before touching the earth. This is a particularly large meteor.
A meteor is a piece of space debris (varying in size) which has entered the earth's atmosphere. "Shooting Stars" generally burn up before touching the earth. This is a particularly large meteor. | Source

What is a Meteor?

Now that we've established that a shooting star, in proper terms, is known as a "meteor" that begs the question: What is a meteor?

A meteor is a piece of space debris that has entered the earth's atmosphere.

Meteors vary in size but are known to be smaller than planets. When you look into the sky during a meteor shower, the meteors appear to be the same size as the stars, but this is only because the meteors are closer to the earth than the stars are. It's all about perspective!

Most meteors will never reach the earth, but will burn up in the earth's atmosphere before coming to ground.

There are two types of meteors. Meteoroids and Meteorites.

Prior to entering the atmosphere, a meteor is known as an "asteroid."

The Two Types of Meteors

As previously mentioned, there are two different types of meteors: Meteoroids and Meteorites. These distinctions describe the condition of the meteor.

Before the meteor reaches the earth, it's known as a meteoroid. This is what you're looking at when you view a shooting star from the earth or with a telescope. Many meteoroids will never reach earth.

Once the meteor reaches ground, it's known as a meteorite. Because of their rarity, meteorites are highly collectible, and you can find beautiful specimens on Ebay or through other sellers. You'll find several opportunities to buy from Ebay on this page.

Owning a meteor is a great way to have a souvenir that comes from outer space. They vary in size (and in price if you choose to purchase one), but if you're buying, make sure that you can get a certificate of authenticity!

Have you ever witnessed a meteor shower?

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Before Entering the Earth's Atmosphere, a Meteoroid is an Asteroid

A meteoroid doesn't exist until it enters the earth's atmosphere: Prior to that, it's known as an asteroid. You won't see a shooting star until it has entered the earth's atmosphere. These meteoroids are moving so fast that they burn up as they pass through the atmosphere and most never reach the earth. This is what makes meteorites so special: They were very large to begin with.

The very largest meteorites are particularly special because of how much of them burn of when they pass through the atmosphere.

The largest meteorite found on earth, the Hoba Meteorite is believed to have fallen to earth 80k years ago. It is also the largest natural mass of iron on earth. It was discovered in 1920.
The largest meteorite found on earth, the Hoba Meteorite is believed to have fallen to earth 80k years ago. It is also the largest natural mass of iron on earth. It was discovered in 1920. | Source
An asteroid is a mass of matter in space. This asteroid is the first known to have a satellite (the small object in the right of the photo.)
An asteroid is a mass of matter in space. This asteroid is the first known to have a satellite (the small object in the right of the photo.) | Source

How are Asteroids Formed?

An asteroid is essentially "space junk." Asteroids are the leftover matter (usually rock or metals) formed during the creation of the Earth's solar system. One way to look at it is that these asteroids are pieces of the planets from when the planets were still being formed in the solar system.

In other words, Asteroids were formed in the same way that planets were, and they are ancient, having been formed 4.6 billion years ago.

Asteroids should not be confused with comets, which consist of ice, dust, and particles of space debris. On the contrary, Asteroids are composed primarily of stone or metal.

Most asteroids in Earth's solar system can be found in the asteroid belt, an area between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.

In most cases, you can't see asteroids with the naked eye and will need a telescope to help you view them. One asteroid (called Vesta) can be seen from earth without a telescope.

To View Asteroids, You'll Need a Telescope

Orion 09007 SpaceProbe 130ST Equatorial Reflector Telescope (Black)
Orion 09007 SpaceProbe 130ST Equatorial Reflector Telescope (Black)

An excellent telescope for beginners, the SpaceProbe 130ST has room to grow for those who are looking for a telescope that will last them through the years. Orion is a reliable source for telescopes and can be trusted to assist new users in making the most of their purchase.

 
Meteor showers are difficult to predict, and predictions are often inaccurate.
Meteor showers are difficult to predict, and predictions are often inaccurate. | Source

Can Meteor Showers be Predicted?

Unfortunately, meteor showers are particularly difficult to predict. While meteorologists and astronomers attempt to promise stargazers that a shower will occur on a particular night at a specific time, these predictions are often inaccurate. If you've ever attempted to make it outside in the middle of the night to witness this phenomenon and been disappointed, you'll understand.

The Perseid Meteor Shower of 2013

The Hoba Meteorite is a meteorite worth visiting!
The Hoba Meteorite is a meteorite worth visiting! | Source
The Hoba Meteorite is about 9 feet by 9 feet wide! It is the biggest meteorite yet discovered on Earth and did not leave a crater.
The Hoba Meteorite is about 9 feet by 9 feet wide! It is the biggest meteorite yet discovered on Earth and did not leave a crater. | Source

The Largest Meteorite on Earth: The Hoba Meteorite

Rated "very good" by Trip Advisor, the Hoba Meteorite is a must-visit location for those who are interested in astronomy and astronomical meteorology.

The Hoba Meteorite was discovered by accident in 1920 when a farmer with a plow ran into something that caused his plow to screech to a stop. When he dug in the soil to find out what had stopped his plow, the farmer discovered that he had run his plow into a hunk of metal. Scientists, discovering the metal, dug out the soil from around it, unearthing the 66-ton iron meteorite.

Interestingly, the Hoba Meteorite didn't leave a crater. This is unusual because most meteoroids hit the Earth's atmosphere at such a high rate of speed that they impact the earth and leave craters in the surrounding earth.

The Hoba Meteorite is the largest mass of naturally-occurring iron discovered on Earth to date, and it is also the largest known meteor to have struck Earth.

The Barringer Impact Crater in Arizona, USA.
The Barringer Impact Crater in Arizona, USA. | Source

Meteorite Impact Craters

As mentioned above, the Hoba Meteorite appears to have not left a crater when it impacted with the Earth. However, if you look at the image immediately above, you can see what an impact crater ordinarily looks like. Clearly the Hoba Meteorite is an anomaly.

This crater is located in Arizona and it has a long and storied history of science. Daniel Barringer was one of the first to claim that the crater was caused by the impact of a body from space, and it was this assertion that changed scientific history. Imagine the impact it would take to create such a crater in the earth!

The meteorite that created this crater flashed, burning, across the sky and impacted with the earth with the force of 2 1/2 million tons of TNT. That's quite an explosion!

Fun Fact for Gamers: Meteor Deaths in The Sims 3 Ambitions

Did you know that in The Sims 3: Ambitions, sims can be killed by a meteor that falls from the sky? This is a fun little Easter Egg included in the game, and it's a difficult death (and ghost color) to obtain in the game, but those who enjoy the game might have fun trying to obtain this death without cheats. It's more likely to happen when using a telescope.

© 2014 Becki Rizzuti

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    • Vellur profile image

      Nithya Venkat 4 years ago from Dubai

      Interesting and informative hub about shooting stars. Thank you for sharing. Voted up.

    • Everyday Miracles profile image
      Author

      Becki Rizzuti 4 years ago from Indiana, USA

      That's pretty cool, Christy! I've never heard of doing something like that, but I can imagine it would be interesting!

    • Christy Kirwan profile image

      Christy Kirwan 4 years ago from San Francisco

      Great explanation, EM! I did a project in college where we used magnets and tape to collect tiny meteors from the dirt outside and examine them in a microscope. I was really surprised to learn that tons of tiny ones fall to earth every day.

    • Everyday Miracles profile image
      Author

      Becki Rizzuti 4 years ago from Indiana, USA

      Thank you so much, Ruby! This was a fun hub to make.

    • Ruby H Rose profile image

      Maree Michael Martin 4 years ago from Northwest Washington on an Island

      I have seen shooting stars before, awesome. Great information.

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