A shooting star is not actually a star, nor does it shoot. It is officially called a meteor, a chunk of extraterrestrial rock pulled into the Earth's atmosphere by gravity. Most meteors are closer to dust or sand in size, not the large boulders frequently seen in science fiction movies. As these tiny fragments of rock fall through the Earth's outer layers of air, they experience a build-up of frictional heat, which causes the individual particles glow brightly as they continue to fall and burn up. Observers on the ground may catch a fleeting glimpse of one as it streaks across the night sky.
It is easy to see how the shooting star earned its nickname. People are accustomed to seeing fixed points of light in the night sky, commonly known as stars and planets. What they're not so accustomed to is observing one of these points of light falling out of place or suddenly burning out. When someone sees a meteor heat up and streak across the sky, it often looks like a real star dropping out of the sky. A particularly large meteor may continue to glow for several seconds, appearing to shoot across the sky under its own power. Therefore, the idea of a shooting star has become a popular shorthand to describe the phenomenon.
While a meteor may not be an actual star, it is definitely from outer space. The universe may look empty, but in actuality, it contains significant amounts of dust and rocks. When comets approach stars, for example, the heat of the star often causes a trail of space dust. If the Earth passes through one of these trails, the result can be a meteor shower or even a meteor storm. Instead of seeing an occasional shooting star, a viewer on Earth can expect to see dozens or even hundreds in a few hours' time.
Some of these meteor showers, such as the Perseids and Leonids, occur on a regular basis, so those interested in viewing them should find a clear field away from city lights during these events. A meteor can be seen with the naked eye, although it requires constant scanning of the night sky and a little luck, since the light can appear suddenly and burn out quickly. Local astronomers or meteorologists should be able to provide a peak time for maximum activity during a meteor shower.