Stargazing and the Moon Week

Comets, Asteroids and Meteors

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Comets and Asteroids and Meteors, Oh My!

When we look up, sometimes, we see bodies that aren’t stars. What could they be? In some cases, they are planets or even spacecraft (check Spot The Station to know when the International Space Station is visible in your area), but did you know there are even more small bodies in space to see?

Comets, asteroids, and meteors are slightly more challenging to see because they usually happen at specific times of the year and are very fast.

Comets are like snowballs of frozen gas and dust that make very large orbits around the Sun. They begin to burn up and spew gas and dust as they come closer to the Sun, giving them their famous tails. Currently, we know of 3,709 comets. Many comets come from the Kuiper belt – where Pluto and a few other dwarf planets exist – and can make an appearance past Earth up to every 200 years or so. Others come from the Oort Cloud – out past our solar system – and can sometimes take up to 30 million years to orbit the Sun! This year Comet Leonard C/2021 A1 is due to pass Earth in early December.

Asteroids are rocky pieces left over from the creation of the solar system and also orbit the Sun. They have no air on them and can vary in size and composition. Most of the asteroids in our solar system exist in the Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter, but sometimes, they get knocked off course and can move out of the Asteroid Belt. There is also a dwarf planet within the Asteroid Belt called Ceres (like the village in Fife). Currently, the known asteroid count is 1,044,726.

Meteors are rocks and debris – and sometimes small asteroids – that enter Earth’s atmosphere. While they are just moving through space, we call them meteoroids or space rocks. When they enter the atmosphere, they are called meteors, and if some of it lands on Earth, they are called meteorites. If you’ve ever seen a shooting star, it was probably a meteor burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere. Scientists estimate that about 48.5 tons (44,000 kilograms) of meteoritic material falls on Earth each day.

Sample of the meteorites at the Dundee Science Centre.

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