Meteors: Nature's Fireworks

Shooting Stars

Here at Voyageurs, the dark skies offer an opportunity to appreciate not just stars, but shooting stars, also known as meteors. Throughout history, some people believed seeing a shooting star was an important event. Perhaps a wish made upon a shooting star would come true. Perhaps it was an omen of good or ill fortune. Perhaps it was simply beautiful.

Early scientists believed meteors did not originate from outer space. Instead, they were thought to be similar to lightning. Not until the 1800s did scientists begin to understand the true origin of meteors.

What is a meteor?

A meteor is rocky material from outer space that enters the Earth's atmosphere. As the meteor falls, the atmosphere heats it up. Eventually, the meteor begins to burn, and it appears as a streak of light across the night sky. When multiple meteors appear from a particular area of the sky, it is referred to as a meteor shower. When pieces of a meteor reach the ground, the pieces are called meteorites.


Where do meteors come from?

The material of most meteors comes from comets. Comets are made up of ice, dust, frozen gas and small rock particles. They range in size from a few hundred meters to tens of kilometers across. Comets travel around the sun, some taking hundreds or even thousands of years to complete a single orbit. When the comet's orbit brings it near enough to the Sun for the Sun's rays to warm it, the comet will display a visible atmosphere and sometimes develop a tail. As the comet heats up, it will leave a trail of solid debris behind it. As Earth passes through this trail of debris, a meteor shower can occur.


Viewing a meteor shower

Meteor showers are best viewed one to three hours after midnight. The darker the sky, the easier one can spot the quick streaks of light. Nights with little moonlight are best. Major meteor showers last three days or longer, and they may produce dozens to nearly a hundred meteors per hour. Meteor showers appear to originate from a particular area of the night sky, called the radiant. Major meteor showers will be named after the constellation closest to its radiant.

Once you know where to look, head outside on a clear night. Move into a position where you can comfortably view as much of the sky as is possible. Nighttime temperatures can be cool, so dress warmly. Use a red-filtered flashlight to preserve your night vision.


The Perseids meteor shower

For summertime visitors to Voyageurs, the Perseids are the best chance to see a meteor shower; August nights are warm and the sun sets early. The shower is called the Perseids as its' radiant is located near the constellation of Perseus. The Perseids are active from July 23 to August 20, with peak activity on August 12 or 13. In an area with little light pollution, such as Voyageurs, the attentive viewer can expect to see from 50 to 75 meteors per hour.

Where to look in the sky for the Perseids

To help you locate Perseus you might want to consult a star chart or planisphere, both serve as a map of the night sky. There are planispheres for sale at the park's bookstores and online at The Junior Ranger Night Explorer booklet contains a planisphere you can assemble. Ask for the booklet at any park visitor center.


Gaze Up

Meteor showers are just one of the many night sky phenomenon you can view at Voyageurs. Search for constellations or planets. Find our home galaxy, the Milky Way, or watch for the aurora borealis. Whichever sparks your curiosity, on a clear night, head outside, gaze up, and experience dark skies.

Last updated: October 22, 2018

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