Meteors are also known as shooting stars, but they aren't actually stars at all. Meteors are streaks of light in the sky caused by dust and sand-sized rocks burning up as they hit Earth's upper atmosphere.
What is a meteor shower?
Meteors are commonly called shooting stars, but they aren't actually stars at all. Meteors are streaks of light in the sky caused by dust and sand-sized rocks burning up as they hit Earth's upper atmosphere at very high speeds — often over a hundred thousand kilometers per hour.
On a typical night from a dark location, you might be lucky enough to see up to 10 meteors per hour. But when the Earth passes through the dusty debris that was left behind by a comet or asteroid, you will be able to see quite a bit more activity in the sky. We call this: a meteor shower.
Since the Earth orbits around the Sun, meteor showers reoccur at about the same time every year as Earth passes through the debris again.
Meteor showers are named after the constellation that contains the “radiant” of the shower. The radiant is where the meteors appear to emanate from — if you draw a line back along the meteors, all of the lines will meet at the same point. This is an effect of the Earth speeding through the comet debris, meaning when you watch a meteor shower, you're seeing direct evidence of our planet orbiting the Sun!
All you need to watch a meteor shower is your eyes, patience, and a clear night. Typically the best time to see a meteor shower is between midnight and pre-dawn, because that's when you are on the leading side of the Earth, moving right into the debris. (animated graphic of Earth flying into debris in space)
By the way, if you’ve heard of meteoroids and meteorites, you might be wondering what the difference is! While in space, the object is called a meteoroid. The short moment while it is entering the atmosphere and burning up into that visible streak of light, it’s called a meteor. And if any part of that object survives and lands on Earth, it’s then called a meteorite and they look like this.