Catch a falling star
How to collect micrometeorites in your own backyard
“Catch a Falling Star” was one of Perry Como’s greatest hits, but the idea behind the song is more than a fantasy. Few know it’s possible to actually catch micrometeorites from meteor showers in their own backyard. It’s a simple, yet exciting, space adventure a child of any age can enjoy, and it’s an excellent science project for 4-H youth here in Nevada and anywhere else that Extension is providing STEM programming. As an uplifting activity, it even reminds adults that there’s a whole Universe out there, and to “reach for the stars.”
Timing is everything
Every year, nine meteor showers are rated as “Class 1” events. This means they are the most impressive meteor showers to see. Plus, they are active enough to produce particles that can be caught. In general, Class 1-designated meteor showers are those that produce at least 10 visible meteors per hour (depending on the darkness and clarity of the night sky) at the shower’s peak.
An aspect that affects these dazzling celestial displays is the moon phase. A fuller moon means less meteors can be seen against the brighter background. Fortunately, even when it is difficult to see the meteors, particles can still be captured to be viewed, up close and personal, if you know the predicted date of the major events for that year. The first one this year was the Quadrantids meteor shower, which peaked Jan. 1-3, but the following eight meteor showers are the big ones that remain for 2021:
- Lyrids meteor shower will be most active April 19-21.
- Eta Aquarids meteor shower will bring a majority of their micrometeorites to Earth May 3-5.
- Southern Delta Aquarids meteor shower particles can be captured July 27-29.
- Perseid meteor shower is the summertime favorite and generally considered to be the finest meteor event of the year, renowned for displaying up to 100 “shooting stars” per hour. This year, it is predicted to be at its best Aug. 10-12.
- Orionids meteor shower is one of the most popular with peak shooting star rates ranging anywhere from 10 to 75 per hour. This year’s three best days and nights will be Oct. 19-21.
- Leonids meteor shower will be taking place Nov. 15-17.
- Geminids meteor shower will dazzle the night sky Dec. 12-14.
- Ursids meteor shower will max out Dec. 20-22.
For three days and nights ...
The simple way to catch, observe and come into possession of a piece of a shooting star is to set out a plastic wash basin, partially filled with enough water to cover the bottom to at least a half-inch depth, and leave it outside for three days and nights. The basin needs to be in an open, exposed area, so no roof or tree foliage interferes with the falling micrometeorites.
It should be placed where creatures are not likely to drink from it, just to prevent thirsty critters from inadvertently slurping up one’s cosmic catch. There’s no exact amount of water that is required, but make sure the basin is full enough so that it doesn’t completely dry up from evaporation, and not too full to pose any hazards of drowning.
Set the basin out on the morning of the first day noted in the list of meteor shower peak dates, and leave it there for a total of 72 hours. If you forget to put it out on the first day suggested, simply let your basin sit out an extra day, so you’ll still be collecting micrometeorites for 72 hours. On the morning of the fourth day, it’s time to harvest the micrometeorites.
Plastic cup + magnet + paper plate = star dust
The streaks of meteors that one sees, as they enter Earth’s atmosphere, result when the outer layer of each tiny meteoroid glows with the heat of friction. Fortunately, many of them don’t completely burn up. Instead, after they enter the lower reaches of the atmosphere and cool, they float down out of the sky as metallic dust, composed mostly of nickel and iron. Both of those elements possess magnetic properties, which means that they are attracted to a magnet.
When it’s time to harvest your star dust, place a magnet inside a small disposable plastic or paper cup, then slowly swish the bottom of the cup through the dark materials that have settled in the bottom of the basin. Some of the “sludge” on the bottom will be pollen, dirt or other pollutants from the air, but since micrometeorites are composed of nickel and iron, they will immediately stick to the bottom of the cup, while the other debris will not.
At this point, pull the cup – with clinging micrometeorites – out of the basin, let the water drip off, then aim the cup over the center of a dry paper plate. Pull the magnet out of the inside of the cup, and then watch as the micrometeorites, which were stuck to the bottom, instantly drop off into the awaiting plate.
If one were to just stick the magnet in the water to grab the micrometeorites, it would be almost impossible to pull them off the magnet afterward. This magnet-in-cup method was designed to make sure that the magnet and the micrometeorites never touch. This is also the reason for using a plastic wash basin for the collection of the particles. If the basin was made of metal, it might be difficult to remove the micrometeorites from the bottom where they could be clinging tight.
Want a closer look?
Looking at the result of one’s micrometeorite collection can be anticlimactic at first, since they only appear to be a tiny pile of black dust. However, using a microscope, those little particles of dust can look like giant asteroids with pits and holes, and a burnt fusion crust, similar to the asteroids that one sees in movies.
If you want to go all out, some excellent USB computer microscopes can be purchased online for reasonable prices (less than $30). These little illuminated microscopes plug directly into the USB port of computers to magnify and display the objects onto one’s computer screen.
Gazing upon these extraterrestrial visitors brings lasting memories to adults and children alike, and connects Earth-bound mortals to the wonders of infinite space from their own backyards.