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Glossary term: Shooting Star

Also known as Fireball, meteor or meteor shower

Description: A shooting star (or meteor) is a fragment of an asteroid, comet, or space debris entering our atmosphere and igniting due to heat generated by friction. This is similar to the way we warm our hands by rubbing them together when we are cold. They are usually very small in size ranging from a few millimeters to a few centimeters. Astronomers call them meteors. Their direction, time of year we observe them, and color allow us to learn more about where they originated from and what they are made of. Shooting stars are visible throughout the year but occasionally they create meteor showers. The brightest meteors are called fireballs and can often be seen even during the day. On occasions observers have even reported hearing sounds as they burn and travel through the atmosphere.

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Term and definition status: This term and its definition is still awaiting approval

The OAE Multilingual Glossary is a project of the IAU Office of Astronomy for Education (OAE) in collaboration with the IAU Office of Astronomy Outreach (OAO). The terms and definitions were chosen, written and reviewed by a collective effort from the OAE, the OAE Centers and Nodes, the OAE National Astronomy Education Coordinators (NAECs) and other volunteers. You can find a full list of credits here. All glossary terms and their definitions are released under a Creative Commons CC BY-4.0 license and should be credited to "IAU OAE".

Related Media

Bright streaks created by meteors radiate from a point in the sky above the dish of a radio telescope.

Gemini meteor shower, by Hao Yin, China

Caption: Third place in the 2021 IAU OAE Astrophotography Contest, category Meteor showers. As the Earth travels around the Sun, it may cross the path of debris left behind by a comet or, more rarely, by an asteroid. These debris enter the atmosphere at high speed, producing beautiful tracks as they burn in the sky due to friction with the atmosphere. The image captures the Geminid meteor shower, named because the radiant point is located on the sky in the constellation Gemini. The particles composing the meteor shower travel at similar speed and in parallel trajectories, which causes a perspective effect like if the stream radiates from one single point in the sky, which is known as the radiant point. This image, taken in December 2020 in China, clearly shows this perspective. This is a very prolific shower, in such a way that over one hundred meteorites could be seen per hour in recent appearances. This meteor shower is one of the few associated not with a comet, but with an asteroid – 3200 Phaeton, which might be a comet that lost all its volatile material. This image shows the large number of meteors that can be observed in this shower, which always happens in December every year. The image also shows one of the most prominent constellations in the night sky, Orion, easily seen by the three stars in a diagonal making up Orion’s Belt, and the red-orange star Betelgeuse. Right above the dish is a bright point and that is the Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky and part of the constellation Canis Major. The fuzzy bluish smudge at around 2 ‘o’ clock is the Pleiades star cluster.
Credit: Hao Yin/IAU OAE
License: CC-BY-4.0 Creative Comments Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) icons
An all-sky image. Bright, slightly curved streaks formed by meteors radiate away from a point in the Milky Way

Perseids 2020 over Dark Sky Park Poloniny, by Tomáš Slovinský, Slovakia

Caption: Second place in the 2021 IAU OAE Astrophotography Contest, category Meteor showers. A meteor shower occurs when the debris originated from comets or, on rare occasions, from asteroids enter the Earth’s atmosphere at high speed, leaving behind beautiful tracks in the sky due to friction with the atmosphere. This all-sky image taken in Slovakia in 2020 shows the Perseid meteor shower in a vivid way so one can really see the Perseids appearing all over the sky. This meteor shower is named so because the radiant point (the point on the sky where the meteors misleadingly seem to originate from) of the Perseid meteor shower is located in the constellation Perseus. This is a very prolific meteor shower, and a very popular phenomenon that can be observed from mid-July until mid-August, when the peak of activity happens. This is associated with the comet 109P/Swift–Tuttle, as Earth's orbit around the Sun crosses the debris left behind by this comet. This kind of image is very useful for full dome projections in planetariums, beautifully showing the Milky Way, our home Galaxy.
Credit: Tomáš Slovinský/IAU OAE
License: CC-BY-4.0 Creative Comments Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) icons
Bright streaks created by meteors radiate away from a point in the starry sky

Geminid Meteor Shower from China, by Dai Jianfeng, China

Caption: First place in the 2021 IAU OAE Astrophotography Contest, category Meteor showers. A meteor shower occurs when the Earth in its orbit around the Sun, passes through a debris trail left previously by a comet on its approach around the Sun. As the Earth enters this debris (small sand grain sized), they enter the atmosphere at high speeds and on parallel trajectories, burning completely leaving beautiful tracks (streaks) in the sky. These streaks can appear and disappear in the blink of an eye, or last much longer. On rare occasions the debris originates from asteroids, as in the case of the Geminid meteor shower, shown in this image, picturing many streaks of debris captured in the sky of China in 2017. Due to relative motions and perspective, the shower appears to come from one single point, known as the radiant point, beautifully pictured in this image. This is similar to driving in a car on a rainy day without any wind, looking out the front window it seems that the rain is coming directly towards the window, when in fact the rain is falling vertically downwards.
Credit: Dai Jianfeng/IAU OAE
License: CC-BY-4.0 Creative Comments Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) icons