WX 101: Various Objects In The Sky

You'll see many different things in a clear sky, such as the moon, sun, stars, and comets.  Here's a brief explanation of what each one is. 

Stars are actually other suns that are many, many light years away.  That's right, our sun is actually a star to planets not in our solar system.  Stars are huge spheres of mass that are typically made of a burning material, which is why they are so bright. 

Stars actually have a lifecycle.  You can see in the image to the right that they grow and shrink through time.  However, we really don't realize most of these changes because its takes millions of years for each stage to occur. 

The Moon
Our Moon is the only natural satellite the earth has, meaning it orbits around us.  The moon is a rocky and solid with many of the features that we see coming from impacts of meteors.  There is only a very weak atmosphere on the moon and the moon is about 239,000 miles away.  You can get more on the moon and its cycles in our WX 101: Moon and Moon Cycles. 

Asteroid, Meteor, and Meteorite
These three objects are very similar in nature, but different in some ways and therefore typically get confused.  An Asteroid is a rock object smaller than a planet that is moving through space.  There are many of these objects between Mars and Jupiter that orbit our sun, just like the other planets. 

From time to time, an asteroid will interact with the earth's atmosphere and sometimes reach the surface.  This is when the name changes.  A meteor is an asteroid that hits the earth's atmosphere.  Most asteroids that hit our atmosphere burn up in a streak of light across the sky.  We call these shooting stars and if there are many of them on one night, we'll call it a meteor shower. 

In the rare occasion that an asteroid makes it all the way through the earth's surface, we call it a meteorite.  These are rare, but have happened in the past.  Even when they do, most of the asteroid is burnt up in the atmosphere, and the left over rock falls to the earth harmlessly.  However, it is believed that a meteorite was responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs, over 60 million year ago. 

Comets are somewhat similar to asteroids, but are typically smaller and made of ice and dust.  When orbiting an object, like the sun, they don't typically have a circular orbit, but a much more elliptical orbit.  When they get close to their star, the heat melts the ice and creates a gas, which looks like a tail.  Famous comets are sometimes seen in the earth's sky, including Haley's Comet. 

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