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Meteor Plots

January 29, 2015

Several weak meteor showers rain into the night sky at this time of year — showers with names like the Alpha Corona Borealids and the February Eta Draconids. They’re all puny, but they add up. Under dark skies, you can expect to see a handful of meteors just about any night of the year.

Astronomers have identified almost 600 possible meteor showers. Only a few produce enough “shooting stars” to make them worth mentioning. But even if they don’t have aesthetic value, they all have scientific value. Every meteor shower is produced by a trail of debris from a comet or asteroid. Plotting the courses of the meteors can help astronomers track down these parent bodies.

A couple of years ago, in fact, researchers at Cal Poly Pomona used a network of 60 video cameras to photograph thousands of meteors in January and February skies. Their goal was to see if any of the meteor streams might suggest that their parent bodies were on a collision course with Earth.

The observations detected meteors associated with 42 showers, including 16 that had never been seen before. Only one of the showers was tied to a parent object, though, and it’s no danger to Earth. But the technique can help point the way to more parent bodies — including those that might someday threaten our planet.

Even on a night with a lot of moonlight, like tonight, if you can get away from city lights you might still see a few bright meteors blazing across the night sky.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2014

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