Fireball

Fireballs are actually meteors that catch fire entering the Earth’s atmosphere. Credit: Photos.Com

The night sky for the rest of this month is looking good with a nice, almost full Moon coming up to ogle. It’s a great target for the novice telescope owner as well because it’s just so easy to find. It’s also a good week ahead for watching the Orionids meteor shower visible across most of Queensland starting tonight, with the peak of the shower occurring on the 21st.

Generally, this is a good shower for beginners with estimates of around 30 meteors per hour. As with all showers, the best time for viewing will be from around 3am until an hour before sunrise. The shower is centred around the constellation Orion. From any part of Australia just look for the familiar shape of the ‘Saucepan’ and watch below the three stars that make up the bottom of the pan.

What exactly are meteor showers? Well, they’re basically the tail ends of comets. As comets orbit the Sun, they shed an icy, dusty debris stream along the comet’s orbit. If Earth travels through this stream, we will see a meteor shower. Meteor showers are named by the constellation from which meteors appear to fall.

They’re called ‘shooting stars’ but that’s incorrect, stars don’t fall out of the sky, they’re simply small bits of iron rock. Has anyone ever been hit by a meteorite? In all of recorded human history no one has ever been killed by a meteor but yes, there have been a number of people struck by them, along with many cases of damage to animals and property.

In 1954, an Alabama housewife Ann Hodges was taking a nap on her couch when she was awakened by a small meteor that crashed through the roof of her house and struck her in the hip. In 1992, a large meteor exploded over the eastern United States with pieces punching a hole clear through the boot of a woman’s car. Her old and rather run down bomb instantly became a collector’s item and later sold for $200,000!

I bet you didn’t know space rocks, or meteorites, could burn. Well, they can and they do! The rocks often appear as huge coloured flashes as they burn up in the atmosphere at around 50 kilometres a second. Just think about that! No wonder they’re so bright, the friction sets them ablaze and we see them streak across the night sky. Don’t forget the name, they’re called ‘fireballs,’ not meteors which are much smaller.

Our meteors this week are typically fast, sometimes bright and generally more than half leave long trails. The Orionids love dark skies so don’t forget to keep your camera handy if they happen – just in case.