Shooting Stars & Burning Questions

Western University’s Professor Margaret Campbell-Brown turns her lens skywards to find answers.

 |  Transcript [PDF]

During meteor showers, the world turns its eyes upwards in hopes of spotting shooting stars as they streak across the night sky. The Perseid meteor shower, which peaks in mid-August, is one of the biggest displays that we look forward to each year. As you make a wish on one of these shooting stars, you will be witnessing an ancient fragment from the coldest outer edges of our solar system reach the Earth. Margaret Campbell-Brown, professor of astronomy and physics at Western University, is hoping to capture these fleeting events to uncover clues about our early solar system the origins of life on Earth.

Campbell-Brown explains that meteors come from pieces of debris or dust that break off of asteroids or comets that orbit the sun. These cold primitive objects date back to the origins of the solar system, and they have remained largely as they were since. Planets on the other hand, built from the same material as asteroids and comets, heated as they formed, changing how they look today.

As the Earth crosses the path of this cosmic debris, the pieces burn up in our atmosphere, and we see these events as shooting stars. Not only do they offer a snapshot of our past, but they also answer questions about how life on Earth is possible, as it is likely that comets supplied some of our water and organic building blocks for life. Campbell-Brown elaborates, “Some of the most fundamental questions that people ask are why are we here, where did we come from, how did we get here? I think looking at the origin of the solar system is a big part of that.”

To study meteors as they burn, Campbell-Brown is aiming cameras at the sky that are more sensitive than our eyes. They can detect very faint events, and they constantly watch over a large portion of the sky. As soon as a meteor is detected, a pair of mirrors locks onto it to capture an up-close view in the half-second or so before it burns up completely. As it burns, her system detects the colour of the flames, which tells us what it is made of – much like how fireworks are coloured by the metals they contain.

Another important reason to study meteors is to help us design spacecraft and satellites to survive collisions. Most meteors burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere, but objects that we send into space lose that protection. Campbell-Brown explains that although most meteors “are very small, they are moving very fast – they can actually destroy satellites.”

Want to learn more about fireworks and flame colours? Go check out our Canada Day Fireworks post on the blog!

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Prof. Margaret Campbell-Brown is an associate professor at the University of Western Ontario and a member of the Western Meteor Physics Group. She studies meteoroids, particularly the distribution and origin of the sporadic meteoroid complex, and the interaction of meteoroids with the Earth’s atmosphere.