Why Are There Shooting Stars?

iStock / Chloe Effron
iStock / Chloe Effron / iStock / Chloe Effron

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Have you ever seen a flash of bright light streaking through the night sky? People around the world have different ways of explaining these so-called shooting stars. But shooting stars aren’t really stars at all!

Shooting stars are really meteors (MEE-tee-ors)—little chunks of rock and dust moving through space. As the Earth orbits (or circles) the Sun, it sometimes comes close to these meteors. Meteors passing at high speeds through the layer of gases surrounding Earth, called the atmosphere (AT-muss-feer), causes friction (FRICK-shun). Friction is when one thing rubs against the other. And friction makes meteors glow.

Friction causes heat. Rocks and dust get super hot as they fly super fast through the Earth's atmosphere. The heat makes them glow until they burn out. We call that glowing streak in the sky a shooting star. (Now you know those aren’t stars at all!) Meteors burn out during the day too, but those bright flashes show up very clearly in the dark. On a normal night, you might see a meteor about every 10 to 15 minutes if you pay close attention. During a meteor shower like the Perseid, which comes every summer, you might be able to see about 100 meteors an hour!

Want to find out more? Take this Discovery Kids quiz to learn the difference between meteors, comets, and asteroids.