Understanding Shooting Stars

Black background showing stars and a comet (a bright ball with a tail fading of to the right)

Image of Comet ISON taken with the TRAPPIST-South telescope at La Silla, Chile. Credit: ESO.

How the Earth moves through space determines the days, nights and seasons, but did you know the movement of the Earth is also responsible for shooting stars? In the 1800s Alexander Herschel gathered some of the first clues that shooting stars appear when the Earth passes through the tails of comets.

Not every star gazer is as lucky as Alexander Herschel. He came from a privileged family of astronomers. His father, John, invented a special calendar called the Julian Day system. Astronomers still use it today. His grandfather, William, is even more famous for discovering Uranus and his great-aunt, Caroline, was a comet hunter.

Alexander was a keen astronomer with a love of maths and physics. He designed a binocular spectroscope to study comets and meteors. A spectroscope takes light and splits it into different colours. Using his spectroscope, he was the first to discover sodium in meteor trails.

In 1871, he became the first professor of physics in Newcastle at the newly founded Durham College of Physical Science. Today, Newcastle University has become a centre for astronomy research.

Did you know... 

Alexander helped us to understand why we see the same meteor showers every year. It’s because the Earth keeps passing through the same comet tails!

Relevance today

Alexander was asked to investigate the famous Middlesbrough Meteorite that fell in 1881. We have a replica of this meteorite downstairs in the Crystals and Gems gallery!

Related artefacts

Sketch of a giant triangular wooden frame with a cylindrical telescope held inside. There is a wooden platform with a person stood on it. They are a lot smaller than the telescope.

Image from Leisure Hour, Nov 2,1867, page 729

Drawing of William Herschel’s 40-foot telescope, the largest telescope in the world in 1789

The Herschel family was all about serious stargazing! William Herschel and his sister, Caroline, oversaw the epic four-year build of a massive 40 foot (12-metre) telescope. The glass mirror inside was colossal, requiring a whole year to grind and polish. William's son, John, dismantled it in 1840 due to safety concerns. 

A metal sculpture with a spiral shape in front of a tall building.

Photo of the Herschel building, Newcastle University

The Herschel building, Newcastle University

Ready to dive deep into the mysteries of space? Newcastle University runs world-leading courses in Astrophysics. The Herschel Building is the epicentre of some serious space investigation. It is named after Alexander Herschel, the first professor of Physics at Newcastle University.

This sculpture, created in 1962 by Geoffrey Clarke, was commissioned by Sir Basil Spence to stand outside his Herschel Building for the Physics Department of the University of Newcastle.

Herschel star chart

This is the original chart drawn by Alexander Herschel in 1872. It shows the tracks of the 54 ‘shooting stars’ he saw in the skies over Newcastle in just one hour. Shooting stars are actually meteors - small pieces of rock or dust that are burning up in Earth’s atmosphere.

(Image unavailable, to view visit the exhibition!)

On loan from The Herschel Family Archive