Meteors or ‘shooting stars’ light up our skies while meteorites even manage to flame through our atmosphere before hitting Earth.

What is a meteor?

What we are witnessing when we see a shooting star is a small piece of interplanetary matter, called a meteor, entering the Earth's atmosphere and 'burning up' at a height of about 100 km.

These small particles are moving very fast relative to the Earth and when they enter the Earth's atmosphere, they are completely evaporated and the air in the path of the meteor is ionized. We see light from the emission of radiation from the ionized gas and from the white-hot evaporating particle. The trail is the hot gas gradually cooling down.

What are meteor streams (meteor showers)?

Many meteors are matter stripped off from comets by radiation from the Sun. If the path of the Earth passes through this stream of particles then we will see multiple meteors whose paths in the sky will appear to come from one point in the sky (the radiant).

Many such meteor showers are seen throughout the year. Some are associated with known comets while others are remnants of comets unknown.

Shower Name

Date of Maximum

Normal Limits




Jan 3-4

Jan 1-6


Blue meteors with fine trains


April 22

April 16-25


Bright fast meteors, some with trains. Associated with Comet Thatcher

Eta Aquarids

May 5

Apr 24-May 20


Low in sky. Associated with Comet Halley


July 8-26



Bright meteors

Alpha Capricornids

Aug 2

July 15-Aug 25


Yellow slow fireballs


Aug 12-13

July 23-Aug 20


Many bright fast meteors with trains. Associated with Comet Swift-Tuttle (1737, 1862, 1992)

Draconids Oct 8 Oct 2-16 ~10 Associated with Comet 21/P Giacobini-Zimmer


Oct 21-22

Oct 16-27


Fast with fine trains. Associated with Comet Halley


South: Nov 4

North: Nov 11

Oct 20-Nov 30


Very slow meteors


Nov 17-18

Nov 15-20

Variable (30-300)

Fast bright meteors with fine trains. Associated with Comet Tempel-Tuttle


Dec 14

Dec 7-16


Plenty of bright meteors, few trains


The Leonid meteors

One of the most prolific meteor showers is the Leonids. The radiant is in the constellation Leo and meteors from this shower can be seen over a period of about 2 days centred on approximately November 17. This meteor stream is associated with Comet Tempel-Tuttle.

The Perseids

Photograph of Snowy Range, Perseids Meteor Shower © David Kingham, Astronomy Photographer of the Year Earth and Space Commended 2013
Snowy Range, Perseids Meteor Shower © David Kingham, Astronomy Photographer of the Year Earth and Space Commended 2013

The Perseids are one of the best-known meteor showers and can be seen in August around 12 August. The  radiant is in the constellation Perseus, just below the familiar 'W' of the constellation of Cassiopeia. At this time of year this can be seen reasonably high in the north-eastern sky at nightfall.

Find out more about the Perseid meteor shower


Sporadic meteors

If no prominent shower is active then most of the meteors that are seen will come from random directions in space. These meteors are called sporadic meteors and about one every ten minutes is the normal rate for them to be seen.

Most fire-balls and meteorites are sporadic meteors. The material in these meteors is associated with the material in the asteroids and it is likely that they represent material that has come from fragmented asteroids.

What are meteorites?

When larger chunks of interplanetary matter enter the atmosphere it is unlikely that all of each one will be evaporated. The outer layers will disappear but the centre is likely to survive and will hit the ground as a meteorite. The speed with which small meteorites hit the ground can be around 500 km/h.

More than 2000 meteorites have been recovered. They are of different types, Stony meteorites, iron meteorites and the rare carbonaceous chondrites. The largest meteorite that has been found is the 60 tonne Hoba iron meteorite; the largest stony meteorite weighs about a tonne and the Allende carbonaceous chondrite was a series of chunks that totalled about 5 tonnes.

One of the best-known impact craters is the Arizona crater in the USA, which is 1280 metres across and 180 metres deep. It was formed several thousand years ago by a 250,000 tonne meteorite with a diameter of 70 metres hitting the Earth at a speed of nearly 60,000 km/h!

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