Nature of Meteor Showers

University of Alberta observatory domes


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Lesson Plan Two - The Nature of Meteor Showers

Related texts: 

ScienceFocus 9, Unit E, Topic 2: Stronger Eyes and Better Numbers; 
Science in Action 9, Unit E, Topic 1.2: Discovery Through Technology

                Unit E, Topic 1.3: The Matter Found in Space

                Unit E, Topic 1.4: Our Solar Neighbourhood

                Unit E, Topic 1.5: Finding the Position of Objects in Space

Learning outcomes*: 

*All requirements in this section are quoted directly from the new Science 9 curriculum from Alberta Learning. The full curriculum can be seen here:

Key concepts:

Reference frames for describing position and motion in space (Unit E)
Satellites and orbits (Unit E)
Distribution of matter through space (Unit E)
Composition and characteristics of bodies in space (Unit E)

Students will:

Describe, in general terms, the distribution of matter in space (Unit E)
Identify evidence for, and describe characteristics of, bodies that make up the solar system (Unit E)
Investigate predictions about the motion, alignment and collision of bodies in space, and critically examine the evidence on which they are based (e.g. identify uncertainties in predicting and tracking meteor showers) (Unit E)
Conduct investigations into the relationships between and among observations, and gather and record qualitative and quantitative data (all Units)

Background information for the teacher

Can be found here (please follow the links embedded therein to related articles). This material forms the major portion of the lesson plan. Teachers may wish to assign reading of the web pages as homework or in-class research.

Outline the activity [1]

Draw an ellipse [activity is found on Page 371 of ScienceFocus 9]

In ancient times the planets were believed to travel in perfect circles, an assumption which did not stand up well to actual observations. In 1609 Johannes Kepler discovered that rather than circles, the shape of planetsí orbits are actually ellipses. With simple materials students can draw their own ellipses. 


String, pins, paper, cardboard, pencil.


  1. Place a piece of blank paper on the cardboard. Push two pins into the piece of cardboard a few centimeters apart, somewhere near the centre of the paper.
  2. Cut a piece of string longer than twice the distance between the pins.
  3. Tie the string in a loop and place it around the pins. 
  4. Put a pencil inside the loop. Pull it tight with the pencil. Slowly go around the limits of the string with the pencil. You have drawn an ellipse. 
  5. Repeat steps 1-4 with the pins at different separations.
  6. Describe how the separation of the pins affects the shape of the ellipse. 
  7. If the pins are almost touching, what shape does the ellipse look like?
  8. How would you draw a circle instead of an ellipse?

Teacher notes and debriefing

The two pins represent the two foci of the ellipse. In the case of a planet, comet, or asteroid, the Sun would occupy one focus. The other is vacant. 

In the case of a meteoroid swarm, each particle would have its own orbit, but it would be virtually commensurate and parallel to adjacent particles. A mature meteoroid swarm can be considered as a large ring of material, not unlike Saturnís rings or the asteroid belt. 

In his seminal laws of planetary motion (1609), Kepler discovered the nature of elliptical orbits, and the mathematical relationships between the orbital speed of a planet and its distance from the Sun, and the orbital period of a planet and its average distance from the Sun. For more on Keplerís laws, see:

Outline the activity [2] 

Predicting Events [activity is found on Page 372 of ScienceFocus 9]

Johannes Kepler and Isaac Newton used mathematical approaches to understand the motions of the planets. Their formulae, and those of their successors, enable astronomers to make accurate predictions about the motions of objects in the Universe. In this activity, students research a predicted astronomical event, then compare their own observations to determine if the prediction is accurate.

  1. Research when the next meteor shower is predicted to occur and when the shower is predicted to peak. A table of meteor showers can be found here. Specifics regarding individual showers can be found by clicking on the name of the chosen shower.
  2. At the predicted time, try to observe the event.


Sky Scan remote sensing station. 


Meteor shower predictions should be researched with this lesson. The actual observations will be conducted in the core Sky Scan program. Data derived from remote sensing of meteor showers can be used to determine the accuracy of predictions. 

Teacher notes and debriefing

Students are encouraged on an optional basis, to conduct visual observations of the chosen meteor shower. Visual observing techniques are described here

We recommend observing and counting for one hour during the best observing window of the individual shower as described on our website. While dark skies are preferred, this would require parental or teacher supervision at an awkward hour. This observation can more realistically be done from the studentís backyard. However, due to the unreliability of the weather and the practical circumstances of the individual student, we stress this should be an optional activity. Those students who do conduct observations are invited to share their findings with the class. 

Copyright © 1999-2015 by Sky Scan, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. 

We gratefully acknowledge the financial support of the 

Edmonton Centre of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Department of Physics (University of Alberta)

and the

Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada

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