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What are Meteors and When Can You See Them?

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Image description: Perseid meteor shower. Photo from NASA.

These days, there’s a holiday for everything… Even meteors!

Each year, June 30 marks Meteor Day, a celebration of the celestial bodies that light up the night sky, colloquially known as shooting stars or falling stars. In essence, a meteor is debris from outer space that enters the Earth’s atmosphere, creating a streak of light visible to the naked eye. The average meteoroid is the size of a pebble, and 15,000 tons enter the Earth’s atmosphere per day. Only a few of those reach the surface, though, and they are then referred to as meteorites.

The first anecdotal account of a meteor shower dates back to 902 AD, an early sighting of the Leonid meteor shower, scientists believe. Chinese astronomers recalled the sighting - “stars fell like rain” - and reports continued centuries afterward. The Leonid meteor shower comes to this day, appearing especially brightly every 33 years.

More recently, a meteor was sighted in the skies near Chelyabinsk, Russia, on February 15. The Russian sighting was the largest reported meteor since 1908. Before hitting the Earth’s atmosphere, it measured 49 feet and had a mass of around 7,000 tons!

Meteors don’t only reach Earth, though - they also can have a lunar impact, meaning they collide with our moon. For the past 8 years, NASA has been monitoring meteoroids that hit the lunar surface, and on March 17, it observed the biggest explosion in the history of the program. It was described as “nearly ten times as bright as anything we’ve ever seen before,” and for one second, NASA reports that the impact site flowed like a 4th magnitude star.

With a little luck, meteors are visible any night of the year, but they are most easily sighted during a meteor shower. Perhaps the best meteor shower, the Perseid meteor shower, is visible every August.

To learn more about what the month of June held in terms of celestial sightings, watch NASA’s video, “What’s Up for June 2013,” or visit their website.

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