Have you ever looked up on a dark night and seen a light streak across the sky? Maybe it only lasted a split second, and you weren’t sure what you saw, but hoped it was a shooting star. Maybe you kept staring up, hoping to catch another one, until your parents finally told you it was time to come in and go to bed. If you haven’t been lucky enough to see one, don’t worry! Thousands of shooting stars can be seen each year from the ground, so you have lots of chances.
Actually, that’s not quite true. They’re not really stars at all, but meteors, or bits of rock that come from space and fall through the Earth’s atmosphere. They go so fast that they burn up and create that thrilling streak of light as they fall. Usually, the pieces are small, like a pebble, and the streak is about as bright as a normal star. But sometimes, if the rock is bigger, it’s much brighter. If it’s very bright, it’s called a fireball! Most meteors burn up high above the Earth, but about 3 thousand fall all the way to Earth every year. When this happens, it’s called a meteorite. Most meteorites land in the ocean, so you don’t need to worry about them.
Occasionally, meteorites have crashed into cars or houses, but it’s extremely rare for one to hit a person. In fact, only one person in recorded history was ever hit by a meteorite. Her name was Ann Hodges, and the only injury she had was a bruise on her leg. She did get into a legal fight with her landlady about which of them owned the rock though. Her neighbor was luckier: he found a piece of the same meteorite, and was able to sell it. He made enough money to buy a car and a house!
People have been noticing meteors and meteorites for thousands of years, and they’ve been around almost since the beginning of our solar system. Some of the earliest recorded observations are from China, over 2,500 years ago! People in ancient China, Korea, and Japan wrote very detailed and accurate descriptions of meteor showers and fireballs.
But of course, people didn’t always know what either thing was. And when people don’t know what something is, you can bet they’ll make up an interesting story to explain it. In Eastern Europe, some cultures believed that meteors were snake-like dragon creatures called zmek or zmey. These creatures would grow so large as they got older, that the Earth couldn’t hold them anymore, and they would fly up to live among the stars. In Estonia, people used to think meteors were hot stones thrown to Earth by demons.
Many cultures thought meteors were linked to birth and death–either a soul falling to Earth to be born as a new baby, or a person dying somewhere and shooting to heaven. The ancient Romans thought a meteor shower signaled the death of Queen Cleopatra. And of course, some people believe that if you wish on one, your wish will come true!
Some of the first people to try to explain meteors as part of nature, instead of as magical or supernatural, were the Ancient Greeks. The philosopher Aristotle thought that the Earth’s atmosphere contained both air and fire, which would sometimes ignite in an area high in the sky, causing the streaks of light we know as meteors. There really wasn’t any evidence to back this up, but the idea stuck around for centuries because no one really had a better one.
Meteorites–the meteors that fall all the way to Earth–were even harder for people to explain. In fact, for centuries, many people believed they didn’t really exist, that they were just legends! It is less common for people to actually witness meteorite impacts, so when they were observed, serious scientists and thinkers dismissed them as fakes. After all, rocks seemed no more likely to fall from the sky than milk or wool…both of which people also claimed to have seen falling from the sky. A few scientists speculated that maybe the falling rocks were from volcanoes, but for a long time, very few suspected they might be from beyond Earth.
Our knowledge of both meteors and meteorites finally began to improve in the 18th century. Edmund Halley, a famous astronomer who discovered an even-more-famous comet, suggested in 1688 that meteors came from space, but later changed his mind. Other scientists around this time explored the idea, measuring the height and speed of meteors and finding they were too high and too fast to have come from Earth’s surface or even atmosphere. They didn’t manage to convince many people, but they were slowly chipping away at Aristotle’s ideas, which were now over 2,000 years old.
Several scientists working at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century would finally do the work that convinced the world that meteorites and meteors were both chunks of rock that came from outer space. In 1791, Ernst Chladni, a German physicist, first heard from a friend about a fireball seen in the sky over Gottingen. Chladni was captivated by the account, and began to research other stories about rocks falling from the sky. Remember, at this time, many people dismissed the idea of rocks falling from the sky as superstition or legend. But Chladni noticed that all the stories shared certain details, even though they happened at very different times and in different places around the world. This made Chladni think that they couldn’t have been made up. They were just too similar.
Chladni wrote about his ideas, saying that he suspected the rocks people had seen were from outside Earth’s atmosphere, or outer space. He even proposed that they were leftover from the process that formed the planets in our solar system, which is true! But people still didn’t believe him–even the friend who told him about the Gottingen fireball was doubtful.
Still, other scientists began to study these rocks that supposedly fell from the sky. A British chemist named Edward Howard analyzed a meteorite that fell near a cottage in Wold, England. He discovered that it was made out of chemical elements that weren’t often found on Earth’s surface. He also noted that the mysterious falling stones from different parts of the world were made out of the same kinds of substances.
It wouldn’t be long before another scientist would finally provide enough evidence–and in the right way–-to put any doubts to rest. Jean-Baptiste Biot was a physicist with a sense of adventure. He went on the first hot-air balloon ride done in order to collect scientific data. In 1803, Biot heard about a rain of rocks–over 3,000!–in L’Aigle France, and he went himself to investigate.
Biot was very thorough in his investigation. He traveled to L’Aigle to find out as much as he could first hand about this reported rock shower. Just like Edward Howard, Biot noticed that these rocks were made out of different minerals than other rocks in the area, and they weren’t like volcanic rocks either. He studied other meteorites and noticed that they all had more in common with each other than with other rocks in the regions where they were found.
Biot, unlike Chladni, also interviewed many eye-witnesses to the fireball and rock shower. Finally, he wrote an exciting piece about the event. This time, both the scientific community and popular media took notice. He said that his research was motivated “not by jealous rivalry, but by the noble love of truth.” Very moving words, right? Pretty soon, scientists–and the regular people–began to acknowledge that he was right.
Since the early 19th century, scientists have learned a lot more about meteors and meteor showers. An American scientist named Denison Olmstead observed a meteor shower in November 1833 that he described as “more extensive and magnificent than any similar one hitherto recorded.” Olmstead began to study meteors as a result of this memorable experience. He showed that some meteor showers, including the one he observed, happen on a regular schedule and can be predicted. The one he saw is now called the Leonids meteor shower, and you can see it every November, plus there are several others throughout the year. Olmstead also suggested that these showers are caused by comets. Comets are balls of ice and rock, so when they pass close to the sun, pieces begin to melt and break apart. If Earth passes through the trail of debris, we get an amazing show of meteors!
If you ever get the chance, you should definitely try to see a meteor shower someday. And now, you’ll be able to appreciate the long history of our relationship with these shooting stars, and just how long and how many people it took to figure out what they really are. You have to stay up late (or wake up very early) and be in a very dark area to get the best show, but the chance to see dozens of meteors in the course of a few hours is worth the trouble! Many websites publish calendars showing when and where you can see them. Until then, you can look out your window for a few minutes each night and appreciate the moon, stars, and planets, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll catch a streak of light in the corner of your eye. Don’t forget to make a wish, just in case!
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