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Why do meteors fly fast?

SPACE/ASTRONOMY: Students from room 4 at Willowbank School, Auckland asked this question.

A meteor is a small piece of rock or even just a tiny grain of solid matter like a grain of sand. These small particles are found between the planets in the solar system.

The Earth is travelling around the Sun at about 30 km per second, which is quite fast. It is travelling fast as it has to complete one orbit of a radius of 150 million kilometres in only a year.

Sometimes a small piece of rock or grain in the solar system will collide with the Earth and enter the Earth’s atmosphere. In fact, such collisions are very common, and thousands happen every day. In general they get hot and burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere. Most meteors are travelling more slowly than the Earth as they orbit the Sun, so it is really the Earth travelling fast, the meteors more slowly. But the relative velocity between the two is still several tens of kilometres every second.

At that speed, the friction between the meteor and the air causes them to burn up high in the Earth’s atmosphere, and we see a flash of light, also known as a shooting star.

Our expert

Professor John Hearnshaw answered this question. He is a Fellow of Royal Society Te Apārangi, which means he’s one of the top experts in his field of physics and astronomy. John works at the University of Canterbury and has a particular interest in planetary systems and astrophysics.

For more information visit:  http://www.canterbury.ac.nz/spark/researcher.aspx?researcherid=86236


PHOTO CREDIT: Norwegian Meteor Network