Matthew Brears, of Lake Tarawera, asks :-

When is the best time to see meteorites?

Jack Baggaley, a physicist specializing in meteors at the University of Canterbury, responded.

The light that we see in the sky is called a meteor, so a meteor is a bit like "flame", the luminous glow made by a Christmas candle. A meteor is the glow from hot gasses made when a solid object, like a stone, comes rapidly into the Earth's atmosphere from space and becomes molten. If the stone is the size of a pea then you can just see the hot gas, the meteor, with your eye. If that solid object is large enough, larger than about a car, the object will not completely be turned to gases and dust but part reaches the Earth's surface. This is called a meteorite.

So we use the word meteor (not meteorite) to describe the effect we see in the night sky.

The best time to see many meteors is in the early morning - about 4am to 6am (of course it has to be a dark sky so the exact time depends on the time of year) and you see fewest meteors in the evening about 6pm - 8 pm. With your eye (without a telescope or binoculars) you will see about 10 each hour in the early morning but only 2 per hour in the evening. The reason for this is that when it is near 6pm you are on the side of the Earth (the front side) that is travelling through space. It is a bit like running into the rain, your front gets wet while your back is more dry. But remember these meteor may be quite faint, and there are more small stones than large stones so you may have to watch for many hours to see a very bright meteor.

Of course you may see a bright meteor just by chance - and it could be anytime of the night.

There are times of the year when there are more meteors. These happen when the Earth goes through a large collection of dust that has been left by a comet. In the southern hemisphere of the world, those good times are near July 28, near October 20 and near November 16. Each of those times when more meteors can be seen, are associated with a particular comet.

At Canterbury University we study meteors using a radar. We track their fast motion across the sky and are able to work out the path through space of the stone that caused the meteor. Our radar detects even very small stones, less than 1/10 of a millimeter across, and we track about 2,000 each day.