We are approaching a great time for viewing meteors: late July and early August, for the Delta Aquarid and Perseid Meteor Showers. Check out EarthSky’s Meteor Guide for 2011 for more details, but basically, look for increased meteor activity for the next few weeks. On any clear night, you can see a few meteors an hour, but a meteor shower can mean anywhere from 10 to 70 (or even more) an hour, depending on the shower and the viewing conditions. Best viewing is usually after midnight, and since we are approaching a New Moon on July 30, the moon will not be obnoxiously bright for meteor viewing.
I love that commercial, and I usually can’t resist showing it when I give a meteor show at the planetarium. But I also point out that what they are showing is a bit incorrect. For one, when the meteors first start talking in this commercial, they are still rocks in space, so technically, they should have greeted each other with, “Hello, Meteoroid.”
Meteoroids are the space rocks in space; meteors are the space rocks entering Earth’s atmosphere and producing a light trail; meteorites are the space rocks that survive the descent and land on Earth. (Anything else is just meteorwrong.)
For another, the meteors in the commercial start “burning” too early; most meteors become visible at 60 miles up from Earth. And finally, they don’t quite catch fire like that. It’s a little more complicated. A meteor travels at a very high speed and compresses the air in front of it. The air heats up, the meteor heats up and is vaporized, electrons get excited, and a good time is had by all–well, at least for those of us viewing meteors; the meteors themselves might object to that. To further your understanding of how meteors work, you can read up on them here, here, here, and here.
I’ll post more meteor fun in the near future. At the moment, my own astronobabies need some attention. In the meantime, keep looking up!