Meteorologists study the atmosphere on Earth. You might think from the title meteorology that a meteorologist would study meteors. They do… sort of. Meteorologists study hydrometeors as in rain, sleet, snow and hail in our atmosphere. More correctly the science of weather is called atmospheric science.
Astronomers study what happens outside our atmosphere in space and they do study meteoroids, asteroids, comets, the Sun, Moon, stars, planets, and other space bodies. Here’s an awesome Space Station shot of a meteor entering our atmosphere. Meteors or asteroids can leave bright trails when they enter our atmosphere as fireballs, making them seem close. Here’s an interesting map from NASA showing where the larger ones end up.
There is also a science of space weather even though it’s not the kind of weather we think about on Earth. Space weather can play a role in radio and satellite transmissions and it could also produce the beautiful Northern Lights. Check out NOAA for much more on forecasting space weather. See the latest forecast for solar storms and coronal mass ejections from NOAA’s Space Weather Center. Learn more about solar flares and solar storms from NASA. There’s a lot more to geomagnetic storms than you might think.
Search for meteor reports or make one and see meteor outlooks
Night sky viewing by Sky and Telescope
Locate the International Space Station
This week’s night sky by StarDate magazine
Earthsky.org is another useful site for what we can see in space
Astronomy Calendar of all major events
See if the Northern Lights are active and learn more here
The Harvard-Smithosonian CFA guide to our night sky
Night sky viewer by Wikisky
More links for successful sky viewing
Annual meteor showers from StarDate magazine
Many things in space move in circles or curved paths that repeat their locations in a cycle. The cycle could be a year or hundreds of years. Some comets and meteor showers happen on a predictable cycle.
Halley’s Comet: The most famous comet is named after Edward Halley who discovered that certain comets make repeated trips as they rotate around the Sun. Halley’s Comet has been has been observed since 240 BC! In 1066 the comet was so bright that it terrified millions of Europeans and was widely credited with the Norman victory at the Battle of Hastings. Halley’s Comet makes a repeat trip every 76 years. The next time we can expect a visit is in the year 2062.
Shoemaker-Levy 9: This comet is named after the scientists who discovered it in 1993. The comet had first broken apart in space in 1992, after a close passage near the planet Jupiter. The comet then plunged directly into Jupiter on its very next pass by the giant planet in 1994.
Hale-Bopp: Comet Hale-Bopp was one of the brightest comets. Astronomers witnessed the comet spew out bursts of dust in 1997.
Here are some basic definitions courtesy of NASA.
Asteroid: A rocky space object that can be a few feet wide to several hundred miles wide. Most asteroids in our solar system orbit in a belt between Mars and Jupiter.
Aurora Borealis: Also known as the northern lights. The south pole has the Aurora Australis. When the solar wind sends charged particles to strike atoms and molecules in the atmosphere, energy is released and appears as light near the poles.
Comet: A frozen mass of dust and gas that moves through space.
Eclipse: The apparent cutting off, wholly or partially, of the light from a luminous body (the Sun or Moon).
Meteor: The flash and trail of light that we see in the night sky caused by friction of a meteoroid passing through the atmosphere. A Fireball is a much brighter meteor.
Meteorite: A mass of metal or stone remaining from a meteor that has fallen to Earth.
Meteoroid: A piece of stone or metal that travels in outer space.
Milky Way Galaxy: the galaxy containing the solar system; consists of millions of stars that can be seen as a diffuse band of light stretching across the night sky
Satellite: An Earth-orbiting device used for receiving and transmitting signals.
Solar Flares: A storm on the Sun that sends out both rays and particles
Star: A ball of mostly hydrogen and helium gas that shines extremely brightly. Our Sun is a star. A star is so massive that its core is extremely dense and hot.
Supernova: The explosion of a massive star, resulting in a sharp increase in brightness followed by a gradual fading. At peak light output, supernova explosions can outshine a galaxy.