The Perseid meteor shower has many colors of shooting stars.

August 10


The 2007 Perseid meteor shower, one of the more intense Perseid events in recent memory. (NASA)

No matter how many shooting stars you’ve seen, every one remains magical. A quick streak of brilliant light racing across the sky, a lingering shimmer trailing behind, and a silent wish for a hidden hope or aspiration. These experiences are what makes the annual Perseid meteor shower so special.

But have you ever wondered what a meteor is, or where their colors come from? The science behind it is mind-boggling. It is based on two primary details about the meteor, with elemental makeup often being key.

While it may seem like shooting stars are enormous, they’re actually quite small — many are only about as large as a grain of rice. Meteors come from a spattering of debris left in the wake of comets. For the Perseids, the instigating comet is Swift-Tuttle, which last passed Earth in 1992.

These itty-bitty interstellar chunks burn up in Earth’s outer atmosphere. That happens when our planet plows through the comet’s trail of remnant space rocks during the annual revolution around the sun. In space, there’s nothing to slow down these celestial pebbles. But when they encounter air drag at the edge of the mesosphere — 50 miles up — that friction generates heat that lights the space fragment ablaze.

The color of a meteor is dependent on two main factors: its elemental composition and its speed.

The flame’s hue depends on the metals within the meteor. While the Perseids are known for being neon green, purple, pink, orange and white, the December Geminids are tones of azure, turquoise and emerald.

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