Ever been sitting down gazing up at the night sky, bearing witness to a glorious meteor shower from the comfort of your lawn chair?
These bright meteors burn through the sky so fast; sometimes, it can be hard to see them before they disappear altogether!
But how fast exactly do they travel? Is there a maximum speed they can travel, and has anyone recorded it?
The speed meteorites travel at is determined by their trajectory and their size and can range down to a grain of sand in size!
How Big Are Most Meteorites?
You may think that a meteorite is pretty big, as it leaves such an amazing shooting star across our sky, but the truth is that the majority of meteorites that passes into our atmosphere to create visible meteors are actually the size of a small pebble, all the way down to a grain of sand, and they usually weigh around 1-2 grams or less!
That’s amazing, especially considering how bright and visible meteors can be in our night sky!
Meteors themselves can be visible from much smaller pieces of debris, but this doesn’t survive the trip down to earth, so it is not considered a meteorite, which only refers to the leftover fragments of space rock that don’t get burned up in the Earth’s atmosphere in its descent.
Where Do Meteorites Come From?
Meteorites are debris from larger rocks passing through space. These can either be from asteroids or passing comets.
Meteorites from asteroids are made up of super dense stony material or metallic material, and these are the minority of meteors we see in the sky.
Most meteorites are debris that falls off of comets. These have a low density and are made of light fragmentary material that is often referred to as a ‘dust ball’.
Meteors are what we call the flashes of light that we see when these dust balls are burning up.
Any of the debris that makes it past the burning intensity of traveling through the atmosphere lands on earth in the form of tiny space rock that we refer to as meteorites.
If Meteorites are so light, and most of them so low density, why do we see them so brightly in the sky? Well, this is all down to how fast they speed through our atmosphere.
We get to witness the brilliant flashes of light in the form of a meteor not because of the meteorite’s mass but because of the incredibly high level of kinetic energy visible as it collides with our thick atmosphere.
This leads us nicely into our main point…
How Fast Do Meteorites Travel?
Meteorites enter the atmosphere at a huge range of speeds.
They can travel from anywhere between 11km per second (25 000 miles per hour), up to a whopping 72km per second (160 000 miles per hour!).
When a meteorite smashes into the atmosphere at these speeds, the energy from air molecules being pushed up against the surface of the meteorite creates a high level of kinetic energy.
This ionizes traveling with the atmosphere and leaves behind a long trail of atmospheric atoms that are pushed to the side to make way for the meteorite to pass.
This long path of atoms is what we can see from the ground as a meteor trail!
The little bits of meteorite debris are so small, but because of their breakneck speed, the column of atmospheric atoms created is just under a meter in diameter and tens of kilometers long, which is why we can see the meteor so clearly from the ground!
When Do We See Meteor Showers?
You can see the occasional meteor flinging into the atmosphere on lots of clear nights, but if you’re expecting to see a meteor shower, you need to know when comets are passing by our planet.
Because comets orbit around the sun in well-defined patterns, it is easy to predict their path.
As a comet goes in its orbit around the sun, it leaves a trail of debris in its wake of fine dust particles and larger meteorites between sand and pebble-sized.
This debris remains in the orbit field.
When the Earth’s orbit around the sun intersects this parent comet debris path, we see a meteor shower as a result.
Most of these meteors burn up so high in the atmosphere that we are unable to see them.
As dust hit’s Earth’s atmosphere at high speeds, we see them as meteors in the sky, though for most meteor showers, we don’t get meteorites as the particles tend to burn up before they get down to the surface of the Earth.
If we see a huge number of these meteors at a high hourly rate, it will be due to the debris of a comet.
Frequently Asked Questions
Below are a few more interesting facts about meteors if you want to find out some more information:
What’s The Difference Between A Meteor, A Meteoroid, And A Meteorite?
Meteoroids are the tiniest members of our celestial skyline.
They range in size from large pieces of asteroids or comets to extremely tiny micrometeoroids (also called meteorites).
When a meteoroid descends into our atmosphere, its impact creates a brief flash of light in the sky, known as a meteor.
So, the actual object is called a meteoroid or meteorite, and the flash that we see in the sky is called a meteor.
Meteoroids are the larger ‘parent’ of the meteorite, and as the meteoroid burns through the atmosphere, any leftover fragments that make it down to earth as much smaller fragments are known as meteorites.
What Is A Comet?
A comet is a celestial object that travels in a defined orbit around the sun.
Since the study of astronomy began, scientists and enthusiasts have been trying to track their orbit through meteor showers.
This is done by looking at when meteor showers occur visible from Earth produced from their debris as the orbit of Earth intersects with the orbit of the comet.
Some only pass by our planet every 100 or more years, such as the Swift-Tuttle comet that passes every 133 years, creating the Perseid meteor shower!
What Is Meteorology?
Before the 1800s, the flashes in the sky called meteors were thought to be purely a result of weather conditions and atmospheric changes and phenomena.
The study of these effects and other atmospheric changes, such as the weather, was called meteorology.
Only after the 1800s was the true nature of meteors as cosmic rock from outside our atmosphere entirely widely accepted as fact.
Meteorology is still considered to be the name of the study of the upper atmosphere and specifically atmospheric weather conditions and patterns.
So, if you ever hear the term, it’s not referring to the study of meteors!
We hope you’ve learned a bit more about meteor showers, meteorites, and the crazy speeds that they travel through our atmosphere at!
Be sure to check out when meteor showers may be happening in the future, so you don’t miss out on seeing these once-in-a-lifetime displays in the sky!
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