On a clear, preferably moonless night, once it's really dark, try this... find somewhere away from the lights of a town or city, sit on a hillside or lay on the ground, and look up at the sky. You'll be AMAZED how many stars you can see!

Of course, you'll see some moving lights as well... mostly planes (boring!), maybe one or two satellites (fascinating, but slow and not terribly exciting), and if you're lucky a few fast-moving streaks of light - shooting stars! The only trouble is that once you've seen one or two, you won't want to leave, because you'll want to see more... trust me, they're VERY addictive!

[There is also the extremely remote possibility of seeing a UFO ... but that's another story altogether...]

Shooting stars are a well-known phenomenon of the skies. They consist generally of small fragments of loose matter, either stone or metal, known in scientific terminology as meteors. Brilliant shooting stars moving at a relatively slow speed are called bolides, or popularly fireballs. The word 'meteor’ (from the Greek for ‘things on high’) has the same root as ‘meteorology’, the science that deals with weather and weather forecasting; and it used to be thought that meteors were among the phenomena that influence the weather.

In former times, astronomers did not pay much attention to flights of meteors. People viewed them as a threat from the heavens and only exceptionally great numbers of shooting stars provoked interest, for they were then usually linked with some important event on Earth. From time to time, however, philosophers gave explanations that came very close to those of today. For instance Anaxagoras, when he learned of the fall of a meteor in Thrace, proclaimed that it had fallen from the Sun. Plutarch believed that these objects came from the skies and fell not only on land but into the sea as well.

It was not til the eighteenth century, however, that a physicist, the Austrian Chladni, had the courage to proclaim that the origin of meteors must be sought in interplanetary space. In 1798 two German students at the University of Gottingen simultaneously observed shooting stars from two distant points in order to determine their parallax, thus obtaining the necessary data for determining the height at which the meteors appeared. They correctly assumed that the path of one and the same meteor would be viewed differently from each of the two points. N. A. Newton, on the basis of twenty-one observed and charted paths, calculated that meteors travel at a height of approximately 61 miles, thus ascertaining at the same time the height of the Earth’s atmosphere and the speed at which meteors penetrate its denser layers. These data have since been determined with greater accuracy.

On some nights meteors are seen in great numbers, appearing to emanate from a single point which is called the radiant. They give the impression of shooting out fanwise from this point over the sky. This is an illusion caused by perspective distorting reality, just as railway tracks, or trees lining a long straight road, appear to converge in the distance. Modern science knows that meteor showers are closely related to the paths of comets and that when the Earth’s orbit intersects or approaches these paths, the showers are particularly strong. The meteor streams are named after the constellations from which they appear to come, e.g. the Perseids, Leonids, Lyrids, or after the cometary fragments with which they are associated, e.g. the Giacobinids and Bielids, and the richness of the display depends on the number of meteors entering the Earth’s atmosphere.

In many instances the cometary orbit on which the meteors travel is known and hence also their origin. Astronomers distinguish meteor systems into permanent ones whose activity is constant, e.g. the Perseids, and periodic streams whose activity varies over given periods. If the orbit of a given stream is only at a slight angle to the ecliptic, the Earth encounters it twice a year; such showers are called ecliptical streams. Some meteors and radiants are sporadic, i. e. they appear outside known radiants. Besides these there are also the telescopic meteors whose numbers are determined by the number that pass through the field of view of a telescope.

So, do you fancy watching for meteors? Don't know when or where to look?? Click here for a table showing the main permanent meteor showers visible in the northern hemisphere...

And if you'd like to check out the subject in greater depth, click HERE for my page of links to other sites all about meteors and astronomy in general...