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Meteors (page 2)

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Author: Janice VanCleave

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Since comets approach the Sun from all directions, most of them are on a different orbital plane than Earth. Therefore, Earth generally passes through the path of any given comet only once each year. However, it is possible for Earth to intersect a comet's path twice each year—once where the comet is coming in toward the Sun, and again when it is heading back out away from the Sun. This is the case with the famous Halley's comet, which happens to have an orbital plane similar to Earth's. It produces two annual meteor showers: the Eta Aquarids in May and the Orionids in October. Model this by repeating the experiment, making the four holes in your poster board in line with one another, with two holes on each side of the Sun.

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1. The direction of most meteors is sporadic. The remains of a long-dead comet are spread widely across space. Thus meteoroids from these comets may enter Earth's atmosphere from any and all directions. Design an experiment that compares the number of meteors coming from one direction during a shower to the numbers that come sporadically during a given time period. One way is to make nightly counts during a meteor shower. Do the same when the meteor fall is sporadic. For information about how to observe and count meteors, as well as dates of expected meteor showers, see Fred Schaaf's 40 Nights to Knowing the Sky (New York: Holt, 1998), pp. 120–127.
2. The meteoroids of a meteor shower are part of a meteoroid stream (debris from a comet traveling in or near a comet's orbital path). These meteoroids may be bunched, or concentrated, in one part of the comet's orbit. When Earth passes through such a bunched swarm of meteoroids, observers on Earth are likely to see a meteor storm (many meteors occurring in a short period of time). Or the meteoroids may be rather uniformly distributed along a comet's path. This occurs when comets have made many trips around the Sun, and generally produces more sparse meteor showers. Design a display for these two types of meteoroid streams.

Get the Facts

Meteors sometimes leave a glowing trail across the sky called a meteor train. What causes this trail? How long does it last? For information about meteor trains and other types meteors, such as fireballs and bolides, see Schaaf's 40 Nights, pp. 118–120.

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