Physics of Meteors

Physics of Meteors

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A falling star is really a Meteor and is a form of space debris. They are not really stars at all. There are cases where meteors have entered the Earth’s atmosphere. In most cases, Meteors burn up upon entry into the atmosphere and never make it to the surface of the planet. There are times when the meteor starts to burn up, but because the mass is big enough, it makes it to the surface, smaller then when it started out. Through both means, the meteor deals with some measure of resistance upon entering the atmosphere. The main resistance that the meteor encounters is air resistance (or drag). Due to this collision with the atmosphere, the meteor’s surface begins to melt and vaporize causing the meteor to start breaking apart at its outer layers.

When a meteor enters Earth’s atmosphere, they enter at a minimum velocity. This minimum velocity is about 11km per second (25,000 miles per hour). That is quicker then a bullet being fired from a gun. That is only the minimum; there are meteors that can get going much faster. Another comparison to this is that a space shuttle moves around the Earth roughly at about 8km per second.

Most meteors burn up when they enter Earth’s atmosphere. There are a few meteors however, that make it to the surface. The ones that make it to the ground are called meteorites.

Not all meteors are the same material wise. Some meteors are made out of rock, while others are made out of iron. Some even have a mixture of both, but in most cases, it is one or the other.

A fun fact that came up is that as much a 4 billion meteors fall to the Earth each day. Most of them are not significant enough for anyone to notice. Another one is that the Earth gains about a million kilograms of mass a day from meteors.

If you let N equal the number of stone meteorites, which fall on one km2 of the surface of the Earth during a one-year period and N, includes all meteorites with a mass greater then or equal to m kg. The rate of the number of meteorites that touches down is:

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Stone Meteorites: log10N = -3.73 – log10m

The equation is different for iron meteorites:

Iron Meteorites: log10N = -5.61 -0.7 log10m

These two equations predict that about 1,500 meteors will arrive within the course of one year with a mass greater then or equal to 100 kg. An object with the mass of 100kg would be reduced to about 10kg by the time it hit the ground.

According to the Fundamentals of Physics by Halladay and Resnick, a drag force is caused by velocity between a fluid and a body. They denote the drag force as D, p as the air density (mass per volume), and A as the effective cross-sectional area of the body to give the formula D = (1/2) CpAv2 for the drag coefficient. They also give the terminal speed as vt = √(2Fg / CpA) based off the equation (1/2)CpAv2 – Fg = 0.

There is an equation to determine the environmental consequences of an impact based on the energy released during an impact. This is related to the kinetic energy of the impactor E. This calculation is described here: E = (1/2) miv02 = (p/12)piL03v02.

For more information (including the calculations for air resistance), you can visit this website: This site shows different equations that were used to create a program to calculate possible meteor entries into Earth.

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