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What, typically, are the colors that can be see in the light from shooting stars? What causes these colors?

The color of shooting stars, or meteors, is determined by two factors: the chemical composition of the meteoroid and the interaction of the its atoms with the molecules in the atmosphere.

The atoms in the meteoroid emit light because they are heated up by entering the atmosphere, and so they burn and release different wavelengths of light, or different colors, in the same way that putting different compounds into fireworks makes them explode in different colors.

The atoms in the atmosphere are ionized by the hot meteroid, causing them to emit photons of certain specific wavelengths, depending on what elements are present.

The common emissions for metallic atoms in meteors and for atmospheric atoms can be seen below. Combinations of the two kinds of emissions produce the colors you see in the sky.

Spectrum with Ca, Fe, Na etc.

Source: http://leonid.arc.nasa.gov/meteor.html

Updated by Everett Schlawin on July 18, 2015.

 

 

About the Author

Sarah Scoles

Sarah has a B.A. in astrophysics from Agnes Scott College, where she worked in the field of radio astronomy, and an MFA from Cornell, where she now teaches.

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