If you are a serious astronomy fanatic like a lot of us are, you can probably remember that one event in childhood that started you along this exciting hobby. It might have been that first time you looked through a telescope. But for many of us, it was that first time we saw a rain of fire from the sky that we eventually came to know as a meteoroid shower.
At the time when you see the first one, it’s easy to remember the movie “war of the worlds” or some other fantastic image of aliens entering our atmosphere in droves to take over the planet. But with some guidance and explanation of what was going on, we eventually learned that these showers were not at all threatening or any kind of invasion. For the most part meteoroid showers are harmless, part of nature and very fun to watch.
So what are these strange lights in the sky? Are they aliens invading from Mars? Are the comets coming to start the next ice age? Or perhaps asteroids burning up as they enter the earths atmosphere. The answer to the above questions is no to the first and “yes and no” to the other two.
A meteoroid is actually a small piece of space rubble, usually dust or small rocks that come from either a comet or the break up of an asteroid in space and that eventually plummets toward the earth. We say “toward the earth” because the lights you see are the friction of the atmosphere burning up those small space tidbits and creating a spectacular show for all of us as they do so. A particularly exciting moment to witness is when a meteoroid breaks up or explodes on entry. A meteoroid that explodes is called bolides.
There are some interesting details about the life of a meteoroid that make the viewing of shooting stars even more fun. To be seen, a meteoroid only needs to weigh as little as a millionth of a gram. But the thing that makes them so spectacular to see is the tremendous speeds they reach as they enter the atmosphere. Before burning up, a meteoroid will reach between 11 and 74 kilometers per second which is 100 times faster than a speeding bullet.
We tend to think of t seeing a shooting star as a freak event and we associate it with superstition (hence, wish on a lucky star). But there are actually thousands of them every year so it really isn’t that rare to see one. In fact, scientists tell us that over 200,000 tons of space matter enters the atmosphere each year and burns up on entry.
Comets are a big source of meteoroids because of the nature of those long tails. A large amount of dust, ice and other space debris gets caught up in a comet’s tail as it moves toward the sun. Then as the comet moves away from the sun in its orbit, tons of this matter is thrown off into space to disperse. As the Earth moves in its routine orbit around the sun, it often crosses through clouds of this discarded matter which becomes one of those “meteor showers” that are so popular for viewing.
These showers of shooting stars are pretty easy for astronomers to predict so you can get into position to see the excitement at just the right time of night and be looking at the right area of the night sky. Usually the astronomy magazine or site will give you a general time and location to be ready to look when the meteoroids start to fall.
Now keep in mind, this is a phenomenon of nature, so it may not observe the time table exactly. Also note that there is a notation system for where the meteoroid shower will occur based on what constellation is its backdrop. The section of the sky to focus on for the show is called the “radiant” because that is where the entering meteoroids begin to glow or radiate. The radiant is named for the constellation it is nearest too. So if the meteor shower is going to occur in the constellation of Leo, then its radiant will be called Leonid. This will help you decipher the listing of asteroid showers in the night sky.
Bonding with the Universe.
As parents, we often worry about what our children are getting excited about. We hope we can guide them to “bond” with healthy things like a love of learning, of family and of healthy social activities. But we also worry they will bond with the wrong people like internet stalkers or the wrong crowd at school. Wouldn’t it be great if we could harness that tremendous energy and desire to latch onto something and bond with it and help our children “bond” with the universe through a love of astronomy?
Kids love to get excited about what you are excited about. So there lots of ways you can “spring” the fun of astronomy on them that will jump start them on a long and happy exploration of the hobby of astronomy. Here are a few to get your imagination going.
- Work it into an evening in the backyard. If you know the night sky will be particularly exciting the night of a big family barbecue, plan to have some blankets out there. Then as everybody else is playing Frisbee, just lay out a blanket, lay flat on your back and start staring up into the sky with a binoculars. Like the old prank of staring at a far away spot to get people’s interest, your kids will see what you are doing and what to know what is going on. As you let them take a peek, their curiosity will take off like a wild fire and they are hooked.
- A surprise visit to the country. Sometimes it is hard to see the vast display of stars from within the city. So if you announce that you are going to show them a surprise one night and have them pile into the car, their curiosity will be going wild as you leave the city. When you find that quiet park, field or lake side spot, all you have to do is point up and say “just look” and the magnificence of the night sky will do the rest.
- A special Christmas gift. You can buy your children an affordable and durable beginner’s telescope along with some easy star maps written just for kids. Imagine when they open this exciting gift and want to know how to use it. Don’t be surprised if you are setting up the new telescope in the snow to show them the great things they will see in the cosmos with the gift that Santa wanted them to have. The gift of astronomy.
- Unleash the power of a meteor shower on them. You can keep your eye on the events that are predicted for the sky watchers in your area. When the next big meteor shower is about to explode over your area, watch the weather for a clear night and get your kids excited about what they are about to see. As the lights begin to go off over head and you create fun and interesting narration to this dramatic display, the children will be addicts for life for the great experiences that can be had as students of astronomy.
- Plan a surprise event in with something you are already doing. For example, on vacation, you can plan your route on a cross country trip to bring you within visiting distance of one of the great multimillion dollar telescopes in this country. By contacting them ahead of time, you can be sure they are conducting a tour that coincides with your visit. Just imagine if they can look up at a telescope that is bigger than their house and maybe look through the eyepiece as some amazing cosmic sight, it will be the hit of the vacation.
Astronomy is a great activity to introduce on a family camping trip. As the family sits around the fire after a fun night of camping, all you have to do is just look up and go “Wow, look at that!” When those little heads look up, they will look back down changed children, children in love with the stars.
Astronomy is a healthy passion for your kids and one they can grow with their entire lives. And there is probably no better gift you can give them than the love of the stars, of science and of nature that is all wrapped up together when your kids bond with the universe through astronomy.