A meteor shower is a celestial event in which a number of meteors are observed to radiate, or originate, from one point in the night sky. These meteors are caused by streams of cosmic debris called meteoroids entering Earth’s atmosphere at extremely high speeds on parallel trajectories. Most meteors are smaller than a grain of sand, so almost all of them disintegrate and never hit the Earth’s surface. Intense or unusual meteor showers are known as meteor outbursts and meteor storms, which may produce greater than 1,000 meteors an hour.
A meteor shower is the result of an interaction between a planet, such as Earth, and streams of debris from a comet. Comets can produce debris by water vapor drag, as demonstrated by Fred Whipple in 1951, and by breakup. Whipple envisioned comets as “dirty snowballs,” made up of rock embedded in ice, orbiting the Sun. The “ice” may be water, methane, ammonia, or other volatiles, alone or in combination. The “rock” may vary in size from that of a dust mote to that of a small boulder. Dust mote sized solids are orders of magnitude more common than those the size of sand grains, which, in turn, are similarly more common than those the size of pebbles, and so on. When the ice warms and sublimates, the vapor can drag along dust, sand, and pebbles.
Each time a comet swings by the Sun in its orbit, some of its ice vaporizes and a certain amount of meteoroids will be shed. The meteoroids spread out along the entire orbit of the comet to form a meteoroid stream, also known as a “dust trail” (as opposed to a comet’s “dust tail” caused by the very small particles that are quickly blown away by solar radiation pressure).
Recently, Peter Jenniskens has argued that most of our short-period meteor showers are not from the normal water vapor drag of active comets, but the product of infrequent disintegrations, when large chunks break off a mostly dormant comet. Examples are the Quadrantids and Geminids, which originated from a breakup of asteroid-looking objects 2003 EH1 and 3200 Phaethon, respectively, about 500 and 1000 years ago. The fragments tend to fall apart quickly into dust, sand, and pebbles, and spread out along the orbit of the comet to form a dense meteoroid stream, which subsequently evolves into Earth’s path.
FAMOUS METEOR SHOWERS
Perseid and Leonid meteor showers
The most visible meteor shower in most years are the Perseids, which peak on 12 August of each year at over one meteor per minute. A useful tool to calculate how many meteors per hour are visible from your observing location is found here: http://leonid.arc.nasa.gov/estimator.html.
The Leonids meteor shower peaks around 17 November of each year. Approximately every 33 years, the Leonid shower produces a meteor storm, peaking at rates of thousands of meteors per hour. Leonid storms gave birth to the term meteor shower when it was first realised, during the November 1833 storm, that the meteors radiated from near the star Gamma Leonis. The last Leonid storms were in 1999, 2001 (two), and 2002 (two). Before that, there were storms in 1767, 1799, 1833, 1866, 1867, and 1966. When the Leonid shower is not storming it is less active than the Perseids.
Any other solar system body with a reasonably transparent atmosphere can also have meteor showers. For instance, Mars is known to have meteor showers, although these are different from the ones seen on Earth because the different orbits of Mars and Earth intersect orbits of comets in different ways.
Although the Martian atmosphere has less than one percent of the density of Earth’s at ground level, at their upper edges, where meteoroids strike, the two are more similar. Because of the similar air pressure at altitudes for meteors, the effects are much the same. Only the relatively slower motion of the meteoroids due to increased distance from the sun should marginally decrease meteor brightness. This is somewhat balanced in that the slower descent means that Martian meteors have more time in which to ablate.
On March 7, 2004, the panoramic camera on Mars Exploration Rover Spirit recorded a streak which is now believed to have been caused by a meteor from a Martian meteor shower associated with comet 114P/Wiseman-Skiff. A strong display from this shower was expected on December 20, 2007. Other showers speculated about are a “Lambda Geminid” shower associated with the Eta Aquariids of Earth (i.e., both associated with Comet 1P/Halley), a “Beta Canis Major” shower associated with Comet 13P/Olbers, and “Draconids” from 5335 Damocles.