The Sky Is Falling, At Least Part Of It Technically, those things we see flashing through the night sky aren

't meteors. Of course they're not shooting stars or falling stars either. They're meteoroids. A meteor (from the Greek meteoron, meaning "phenomenon in the sky") is the streak of light that trails the meteoroid through the sky as it falls to earth. The light derives from the surface of the meteoroid burning up and breaking off as it tears through the atmosphere about 130,000 miles per hour (208,000 kilometres per hour). At least that's the speed of meteoroids coming from the Perseids, the shower of meteoroids associated with the comet Swift-Tuttle that visit us every August. When it strikes the ground, it ceases to be a meteoroid and instantly becomes a meteorite. While these facts may seem like petty distinctions, using the wrong word in the right company could distinguish you as someone who's not well versed about the names of events and objects that visit our night sky year round. The Perseids are also known as the "Tears of Saint Lawrence," named after a martyr the Romans roasted on a stove in 258 CE. Despite the sadness of the event and the tears he supposedly shed (more likely shed for him on his demise), the rumour persists to this day that before dying he cried out "I am already roasted on one side. If thou wouldst have me well cooked, it is time to turn me on the other." (Hey, that's not the kind of thing a writer makes up for polite company.) Meteoroids contain the oldest known rocks in the solar system, as well as pre-solar grains of minerals that formed around other stars perhaps billions of years before our solar system came into being. Each day an estimated four billion meteoroids fall through our atmosphere. Few of them make it to earth because they are so small they burn up in the atmosphere. While hundreds of injuries have been blamed on meteoroid impacts over past centuries, only one documented case exists. Annie Hodges, of Sylacauga, Alabama, U.S.A., was struck in the behind by an eight pound meteoroid that smashed through her roof in 1954, bounced off a radio and landed on her as she was taking a nap. The journal Nature calculated in 1985 that meteoroids hit people once every 180 years, so we have Annie to thank for reducing the odds of our being hit for the rest of our lives. The International Space Station, however, is not so lucky. An estimated 100,000 meteoroids will slam into it during its twenty year expected life span. To protect the crew and equipment, a footthick layer of kevlar--the stuff that bullet proof vests are made of--surrounds the station. Meteoroids join asteroids and comets in a category known as Near Earth Objects, space clutter that science fiction writers love to tell us threatens us with extinction at any time. A spacecraft project known as Clementine II was cancelled by U.S. President Clinton, either because his advisors told him it wouldn't do the job of diverting NEOs or because of the giggle factor of other countries laughing at the U.S. for being so paranoid. Conventional wisdom today claims that exploding a nuclear device nearby a Near Earth Object approaching our planet is the best way to deflect it away from us. Her's how that works. Radiation from the explosion would vaporize the surface of the space object. As the vapor streams away, it would give a push to the main bulk of the object, nudging it enough to cause it to veer away from a path toward earth. That "push" is called an X-ray slap, should you want to impress your friends at the next gathering where annihilation of our species by extra-terrestrial objects comes under discussion. In 2004 a 30 foot wide meteoroid tore through the atmosphere and landed in Antarctica, leaving about two million pounds of dust behind. That dust seeded rain clouds as far away as the most

distant parts of our planet, enough to alter climate slightly, cooling it by blocking sunlight from reaching earth's surface. The main factor determining climate change is too much or too little sunlight, despite what you have heard about carbon dioxide. The ionized trails behind meteoroids (called meteors, remember?) are used to bounce radio signals around the planet by NATO and the National Weather Service of the U.S.A. Who knows, if you picked up a radio station from a distant and unlikely source some evening, it might have bounced its way to you via a meteor trail. Should you find a meteorite--the best places to look are Antarctica and the Sahara because they stand out against the plain background--you will be required to donate 20 grams or 20 percent (by weight), whichever is smaller, to a laboratory for future research, a rule imposed by the Nomenclature Committee of the Meteoritical Society. You can sell the rest. Unless you found it in South Africa, where you must turn it over to the nearest authority, according to the National Heritage Law. Of the 24,000 meteorites that have been collected on earth, only 34 are believed to have originated on Mars, according to studies of their mineral makeup. Martian meteorites can fetch $500 a gram, while other space rocks sell for about two dollars per gram. eBay often lists as many as 1000 meteorites up for auction. But beware, if you bid on one you may be in competition with avid collectors Steven Spielberg and Sheik Saud bin Mohammed al-Thani, of Qatar. Now you know you can't catch a falling star and put it in your pocket, as the song says. But no evidence exists that proves that it's not lucky to see one on a clear night. After all, star gazing has long been known as a romantic pursuit. And you might get lucky if you see a falling star. [Primary information source: Discover magazine, August 2006] Bill Allin Turning it Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems, a book about preventing easily avoided problems that children develop as they grow up. Learn more at