Meteor showers rain down clues on the solar system

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Hundreds of years after meteor showers were first observed, these cosmic glasses are still providing scientific clues to researchers on Earth.

Why is this important: Meteors bring information about their relative asteroids and comets, which document the history of the solar system and help scientists study the origins of Earth and other planets.

  • Understanding meteor showers also allows space agencies and companies to keep their spacecraft safe in orbit by knowing more about the environment around them.
  • Rocks and dust can impact high-speed satellites, damaging them or knocking them out of service altogether.

What is happening: November and December are peak months for annual meteor showers, and scientists around the world will be keeping an eye out for these shooting stars.

  • The Taurid meteor shower is ongoing and the Leonid meteor shower is expected to peak in the middle of the month.

Every meteor shower has different characteristics.

  • “The Taurids produce a lot of fireballs, not because they are fast, but because they are more like the size of a pebble or a baseball. Whereas the Leonids are fast, extremely fast, but they are specks of dust,” said NASA astronomer Bill Cooke. Axios.
  • Fireballs are defined as meteors that appear about as bright or brighter than Venus in the night sky.
  • The Geminid meteor shower – often one of the best of the year – will peak in mid-December, bringing bright balls of fire to dark skies.

How it works: Researchers use powerful radar systems around the world to monitor the skies for meteors.

  • Some of these radar systems work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, but other more specialized and powerful instruments that can detect extremely small meteors only work for a short time due to the cost of running them.
  • Citizen scientists with their own backyard cameras also provide important field data, Quanzhi Ye, an astronomer at the University of Maryland College Park, tells Axios. These contributions may include information on the frequency and timing of meteors.
  • “You don’t need to have a million dollar lab to do meteor observations,” Ye said. “Sometimes you can just use your eye or just spend a few hundred dollars and build your own cameras.”

The big picture: Meteor showers occur when Earth passes through trails of debris left by comets and asteroids.

  • The planet reliably intersects with some of these debris trails at the same time every year. Other meteor showers are random occurrences, depending on which new comets and asteroids have crossed Earth’s orbit at any given time.
  • By tracking a meteor’s trail, measuring its speed, brightness, and even distinguishing its color, scientists can learn more about the asteroid or comet that left behind that dust and rock without ever having to. visit it directly.

Enlarge: Meteor science still challenges long-held ideas about the formation of the solar system.

  • A fireball observed over Canada in 2021 came from a part of space thought to be populated by icy comets.
  • But when scientists observed the striated meteor, they discovered it had the qualities of a rocky object, challenging theories about the evolution of our solar system.

The plot: A new study in the Astrophysical Journal suggests that a 2014 fireball was actually an interstellar object.

  • Scientists are also looking for other possible interstellar meteors, hoping to discover more objects like these.
  • The discovery of interstellar meteors would allow scientists to learn more about other solar systems and the objects they contain without sending a mission to visit one.

What to watch: Meteor shower science is a small field of science, and many meteor scientists focus on reanalyzing research done decades ago by applying new techniques to see what previous researchers might have missed.

  • “Around the world, there are about 100 of us,” Cooke adds. “A lot of what we know is based on work done in the 50s and 60s, and we don’t really know how good they are.”
  • For example, scientists are able to see many more high-speed meteors now than before by fixing an instrument glitch that made it harder to see these types of meteors in previous years.

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