Beyond The Forecast: What’s In A Meteor Shower?

Read to find out where meteor showers come from and when to spot an upcoming shower

Happy Monday and welcome to another edition of the Beyond The Forecast newsletter!

After our recent lunar eclipse, you might be wondering what else we can spot in the sky over the next few months. There are all sorts of upcoming phenomena from the summer solstice to Earth’s aphelion, but for today let’s focus on meteor showers.

A meteor shower is the culmination of several different processes in space working together. A typical meteor shower starts with a comet: a chunk of ice and rock traveling through the cosmos.

Comets are distinguished as consistently moving through space with pieces breaking off forming a tail in their wake formally known as a coma. When a comet passes close enough to Earth the debris in the coma is attracted to Earth’s gravity and starts heading for the planet.

The basic structure of a comet is the main core of ice and rock and the tail of debris that follows in its wake

At this point those pieces of rock and ice are termed meteoroids. The “meteor” part of the word refers to something falling toward Earth’s surface (this is also where the root of the word meteorology comes from - raindrops can also be referred to as hydrometeors).

Once a meteoroid encounters the Earth’s atmosphere on its journey to the surface the molecules that make up the air itself are in the way. The meteoroid is constantly colliding with tiny particles. If it were traveling slowly it would not have much of an impact, but because the meteoroid is starting from such a high altitude it has enough speed to cause friction with the air. That friction turns into heat just like when a spacecraft reenters the atmosphere, but those machines have heat shields to keep the astronauts and equipment safe. Without that shield dispersing heat the meteoroid ignites and forms its own fiery tail - at this point, it is called a meteor.

When a piece of debris enters the Earth's atmosphere it is termed a Meteor

The meteor will continue to travel towards Earth; some burn up entirely due to friction while some other pieces may actually make it to the ground. Those remnants of rocks are termed meteorites.

Meteor showers are occasions when multiple meteoroids break off of a comet and head toward earth. Some comets orbit about once a year making for a handful of easy to predict meteor showers, and in other instances, the comet passing by can have a much longer orbit and only cause a meteor shower once every few years to once in a hundred years.

There are regular meteor showers that you can spot each year, but be on the lookout for additional showers formed by comets with longer orbits

The most recent meteor shower was the morning of May 15, but it was hard to spot in our part of the country. The next meteor shower is the Perseid shower. Most annual meteor showers are named for the constellation that it appears the meteors originate from. The comet Swift-Tuttle makes a pass near Earth in the same direction as the Perseus constellation. That shower is coming up on the night of Aug. 12 so be sure to look to the north/northeast around 9 p.m. for the best chance to spot it.

Look to the northeast on the night of August 12th to spot the Perseid shower
The meteor shower will appear to originate from just to the left of the constellation Perseus

Mark the date in your calendar now so that you get a reminder when the shower is coming up, and we would love any pictures you can get. Upload those to Pin It on our weather app or on

For our current forecast, you can expect cooler temperatures for the first half of the workweek thanks to the cold front that helped form storms on Sunday. Temperatures will climb with our next warm front to take us back to average highs. Get Meteorologist Chris Michaels’ latest updates.

You can always get specific forecast details for your zone, whether it’s the Roanoke Valley, Lynchburg area, the New River Valley or elsewhere around Southwest and Central Virginia, anytime at Know your zone!

In case you missed it, we have great weather and science content on Here are some featured stories from the past week:

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-- Marshall Downing

About the Author:

Samantha Smith joined WSLS 10’s award-winning digital team as a content producer in July 2018.