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A meteor seen below the Milky Way.

Episode 2:

with guest Peter Jenniskens of the SETI Institute

Dr. Peter H. Jenniskens

In this episode, we explore those things that go "flash" in the night sky -- and often are romantically called "shooting stars". In reality, of course, they're not stars but "meteors". Now, meteors are not part of our weather, as people used to think, but are usually caused by pieces of rock that arrive from space at incredibly high speeds and collide violently with the air. These meteoroids can be as small as a grain of sand all the way up to a good-sized boulder and often come from streams of dust particles created by comets as they travel around the Sun. We'll also discuss other forms of cosmic debris, such as asteroids.

Listen (mp3, 10.9 MB)

Download Transcript (pdf)

Further Activities & Resources 


Written and narrated by Carolyn Collins Petersen

Original music by Geodesium

Produced by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific

Web page materials by Andrew Fraknoi

Special thanks to Dr. Peter H. Jenniskens for his input on the script, and to Dr. Seth Shostak for audio recording assistance at SETI Institute.

Exploring Cosmic Debris Further:
A Collection of Activities and Resources to Get Behind the Headlines

Andrew Fraknoi (Foothill College & ASP)
June 2009

Here are some materials for informal science educators (and their audiences) to delve more deeply into the topics discussed in this month's "Astronomy Behind the Headlines" podcast. This month's topic concerns what astronomers like to call "cosmic debris" -- the smaller chunks of material in space left over from the formation of our solar system -- and how they interact with observers on Earth. We'll look at five topics inspired by Dr. Jenniskens' comments: meteors (shooting stars) and meteor showers; meteorites; comets, asteroids, and hybrid objects; and the discovery of the fragments of asteroid 2008TC3.

For more detailed information, see Dr. Jenniskens' recent book: Meteor Showers and Their Parent Comets (2008, Cambridge University Press) available in both hardcover and paperback. Here we will restrict ourselves to materials that are accessible on the Web with the click of a few keys.

A. Meteors and Meteor Showers

A1. Background Information

A2. Activities

B. Meteorites

B1. Background Information

B2. Activities

C. Comets, Asteroids, and Hybrid Objects

C1. Background Information

C2. Activities

D. Asteroid 2008 TC3

A. Meteors and Meteor Showers

meteor shower painting
Painting (with some artistic license) of a very strong meteor shower in 1833.

When a smaller chunk of cosmic material hits the Earth's atmosphere and burns up, the flash of light we see from it is called a meteor. When the Earth in its orbit encounters a stream of debris loosened by repeated passes of a returning comet, we get a good number of meteors at the same time and have a meteor shower.

A1. Background Information

Astronomy Magazine's Meteor and Meteor Shower Page: http://www.astronomy.com/asy/default.aspx?c=a&id=2109

Meteor Background Information from NASA Ames' Leonids Site:

Meteor Showers Online by Gary Kronk:

Sky & Telescope magazine articles on meteor observing:

Space.com's Meteor Top Page:

The American Meteor Society (for serious observers):

The International Meteor Organization (for serious observers):

A2. Activities

Observing and Photographing Meteor Showers (Planetary Society): http://www.planetary.org/explore/kids/activities/meteor_showers.html

Topics for Classroom Discussion from the Kansas Meteorite Museum: http://www.wviz.org/cms_images/education/newsdepth/lessons/Kansas_Meteorite_Museum.pdf


B. Meteorites

fragment of Murchison Meteorite
A fragment of the 1969 Murchison Meteorite in a museum in Washington DC (Art Bromage).

When a chunk of cosmic material survives its fall through the Earth's atmosphere and lands on our planet's surface, scientists call it a meteorite. Unless a meteorite is found in an unusual location (for example in the middle of an ice field in the Antarctic), it can be hard to tell a cosmic piece of rock from one that belongs to the Earth. Many Earth rocks are brought to museums as possible meteorites, but turn out to be terrestrial -- scientists refer to these as meteor-wrongs instead of meteorites. But a real meteorite can be very valuable, since its composition can tell us more about the original chemical makeup of the "mother cloud" that gave birth to the solar system.

B1. Background Information

A meteorite on exhibit in China.
A meteorite on exhibit in China.

About Meteorites (British and Irish Meteorite Society):

Meteorites and their Properties (by David Kring, University of Arizona):

Meteorites that Have Struck Human Structures or People:

Meteorites from Mars (a listing and links from the Jet Propulsion Lab):

The Meteoritical Society (more technical):

B2. Activities

Exploring Meteorite Mysteries NASA Activity Guide:

Collecting Micrometeorites (NASA):

C. Comets, Asteroids, and Hybrid Objects

Asteroid Ida
The asteroid Ida with its moon Dactyl, as captured by the Galileo spacecraft (NASA).

Astronomers have divided the "debris" they find among the planets into two categories: the rocky pieces are called asteroids and the icy chunks are called comets. But more recently, it has become clear that asteroids can have ice on them and that comets can have quite a bit of rocky materials within. Objects that combine features of comets and asteroids (for example, having a comet-like orbit but being made mostly of rock) have been called Centaurs, after the mythological creatures who were half human and half horse. (Note that in this brief overview, we will not include web sites about asteroid and comet impacts on the Earth; those are likely to be a separate Astronomy Behind the Headlines feature in the future.)

C1. Background Information

Painting of Comet Donati in 1858
Painting of Comet Donati in 1858.

Dawn Mission to the Largest Asteroids:

Introduction to Comets (by Don Yeomans):

Missions to Comets:

Quick Fact Sheet on Asteroids:

Comet Observing Articles from Sky & Telescope Magazine (for serious observers):

Cometography (a site by Gary Kronk that list current and past comets of note and has lots of detailed information):

Centaurs Wikipedia page:

C2. Activities

Comet Hale-Bopp in 1996
Comet Hale-Bopp in 1996.

Making a Comet in the Classroom (by Dennis Schatz):

Rocks and Ice in the Solar System IYA Activities Kit (from the Night Sky Network):

Stardust Mission (NASA) Comet Activities:

Vegetable Light Curves (NASA Dawn Mission: making a graph of the brightness of a potato to show how astronomers make light curves to explore the surfaces of asteroids):

D. Asteroid 2008 TC3

The discovery of fragments of 2008TC3 (SETI Institute)
The discovery of fragments of 2008TC3 (SETI Institute).

On October 6, 2008, astronomers found a small asteroid headed for the Earth, and it hit us the next day, exploding about 37 km above the ground. We were able to track it so well that the fragments were recovered in Sudan by a team led by Peter Jenniskens. 280 fragments were found after several trips into the Nubian Desert. This was the first example of a chunk of cosmic material that was both seen coming in and found on the ground after it crashed.

Kelly Beatty's March 2009 blog for Sky & Telescope: http://www.skyandtelescope.com/community/skyblog/newsblog/41873107.html

The story by Seth Shostak (SETI Institute):

The early story of 2008 TC3 as of October 2008 (by Emily Lakdawalla of the Planetary Society):

NASA's album of images: