How common are shooting stars?
August 22, 2006 10:58 PM   Subscribe

Is it possible to see random shooting stars, or am I crazy?

Within the past three nights, I think I've seen two shooting stars. Two random times I happened to look up at the sky I could have sworn I saw one. But they were both gone so fast that I completely doubt that it happened. Kind of like what you could have sworn was a mouse dart across a New York City apartment, until it is gone in a flash.

Am I seeing things or can these have really been shooting stars? This question may sound very elementary, but the thing is, I'm not sure if I've ever seen something like that before (except for meteor showers, which is different).

Are they so common that I could have actually seen two in the course of three nights? Is this a figment of my imagination? Or did I luck out in seeing them?
posted by orangeshoe to Science & Nature (18 answers total)
Random shooting stars happen all the time. Anytime a piece of rock or dust passes through the earth's atmosphere you can see it, if it's sufficiently dark.

Furthermore, the peak of the Perseids meteor shower was just last weekend. It's likely you're seeing remnants of that at the moment. Lucky you! I missed it this year.
posted by autojack at 11:01 PM on August 22, 2006

Incidentally, a meteor shower is just a slew of "shooting stars." I'm not sure what you meant by "except for meteor showers, which is different."
posted by autojack at 11:02 PM on August 22, 2006

Yes those are shooting stars and it's totally normal to see two in a row. If you lived someplace dark you'd see them all the time.
posted by fshgrl at 11:03 PM on August 22, 2006

Okay, good then I'm not crazy! Sorry about the "meteor shower" mishap. I wasn't aware that shooting stars were exactly the same thing!

And you are right. The places I've seen them lately have been dark. And I'm used to living in a place where there is lots of light and even stable stars are hard to see on a clear night.

So perhaps I'm just seeing the remnants of the meteor shower that autojack mentions. I hadn't even known I'd missed one.
posted by orangeshoe at 11:06 PM on August 22, 2006

If you watch long enough, you'll see a lot more than a couple per night. Some are even pretty bright. If you go here, and put in your city, you can see a list of satellites for your area for the evening. On nights when nothing's going on, its sometimes fun just to lie in a field & wait for them. You see a fair number of meteors/debris this way too.
posted by devilsbrigade at 11:06 PM on August 22, 2006

At least I acknowledged my question was elementary. :) Living in a city your whole life, you miss out on lots of exciting things I suppose.
posted by orangeshoe at 11:09 PM on August 22, 2006

Maybe these are just outliers from the Perseid meteor shower, which peaked on Aug 11.
Perseid meteors are tiny, perhaps the size of a grain of sand, that are debris that lies in the orbit of Comet Swift-Tuttle. They hit the Earth's atmosphere at more than 35 miles per second, and create a brilliant streak of light in the sky.
I once spent the night sleeping outside in a remote part of Colorado during a shower and there was a new shooting star every 5 seconds.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 11:59 PM on August 22, 2006

The places I've seen them lately have been dark. And I'm used to living in a place where there is lots of light and even stable stars are hard to see on a clear night.
The pollution, water vapour and light reflected from the atmosphere that get between you and the sky when you're in a city make anything up there hard to see. But when I stay at my parents' place in the hills around a new moon, I can go outside and see meteors quite often. A couple of times I've been facing the wrong way but turned around because the shooting star lit up the whole sky.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 3:16 AM on August 23, 2006

I once saw 5 shooting stars in the space of a couple of hours one night, and the person I was with saw at least a couple too so it's definitely not that unusual.
posted by fire&wings at 4:52 AM on August 23, 2006

I agree with everyone that it was most likely a meteor, possibly left over from the perseids, but for completeness sake I wanted to bring up one other possibility: Iridium flares. You can even go to Heavens Above (and probably other places) to see if there was a flare predicted for the time and place of your observations as well as in the future.
posted by TedW at 5:05 AM on August 23, 2006

Orangeshoe, the Perseid happens every August. There are others at other times of the year.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:40 AM on August 23, 2006

When I lived in rural Iowa, sometimes I'd lie outside on my back on dark, moonless nights. I'd see as many as half a dozen stars over the course of a few hours. Other friends confirmed the same experience. I'd say they're out there all the time, but usually the sky's too bright and we're too distracted to see them.

My great astronomical mystery: alone in the Appalachians a few years back, driving home from a day of hiking, I saw a massive shooting star -- a meteor that had clearly entered the atmosphere. It was still very distant, but flaming like a bit orange ball. It moved fast across the sky and then disappeared. I've never found anybody else who saw it. It was incredible, but I can't help but second guess myself and wonder if it was really there at all.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 6:42 AM on August 23, 2006

Growing up in the Southwest, I would often camp out under the stars, and watch meteors light up the sky. Once I even had the pleasure of seeing one split into two before burning up in the atmoshphere.
posted by walleeguy at 6:58 AM on August 23, 2006

croutonsupafreak- I saw one too back in the early seventies, the next day the newspaper said "fireballs" were seen over several western states.
posted by Iron Rat at 6:59 AM on August 23, 2006

Most shooting stars are meteors but ocassionally you might see assorted space junk.
posted by JJ86 at 7:18 AM on August 23, 2006

Most are very small (a few milligrams), but thousands fall, amounting to more than a hundred tons of material per day. It is the atmospheric friction caused by their extremely high speed that produces the flash. Note the distinction between meteoroids (in space), meteors (passing through atmosphere), and meteorites (hitting the earth).
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 8:14 AM on August 23, 2006

Does it have to be one or the other? Maybe you're Crazy AND you see shooting stars.

(p.s. I'm going along with everyone else... having grown up in the vast nothingness that is South Dakota, shooting stars are nothing special... the ones that start overhead and nearly touch the horizon are the ones that are worth mentioning)
posted by hatsix at 12:33 PM on August 23, 2006

crouton - I saw one like that once. Just an amazing sight. I was in the middle of nowhere in Nova Scotia, no manmade light for miles, and there were several of those regular faint meteors that so excite city kids like me. Then suddenly, this huge fireball streaked vertically down the sky in front of me, leaving a trail that burned across half the sky for what seemed like almost a minute. I actually let out a yell. Never seen another one though, sadly.
posted by CunningLinguist at 7:49 AM on August 24, 2006

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