How rare are shooting stars?

The Geminids meteor shower is a great opportunity to see shooting stars. (Image credit: Geminids meteor shower_Haitong Yu via Getty Images)

An old superstition suggests that if you wish upon a shooting star, your wish will be granted. The implication is that shooting stars are so rare, and your sighting so fortuitous, that you’ve been specially selected for a dose of good luck.

But are shooting stars actually all that elusive? And what are they, exactly?

A shooting star is a “common, if inaccurate, name for a meteor,” or a space rock that collides with Earth’s atmosphere, said Edwin Charles Krupp, an astronomer and director of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles.

Meteors that are called shooting stars appear as “a flash of light” to sky-gazers, Krupp told Live Science. “This light is the visible trail of gases in Earth’s upper atmosphere [that are] heated to incandescence by the high-speed passage of a meteoroid, or meteoric particle, intercepting the Earth.” Quite simply, a “shooting star” is a piece of space rock or dust that briefly becomes visible when it begins to burn up in our planet’s atmosphere. Much of this material comes from the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.