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Monday, October 2, 2023

What is the speed of a meteor

The celestial ballet, as portrayed by the night sky, is filled with mesmerizing objects, each with its own story and physics. Among these cosmic phenomena, meteors hold a special place for earthlings, primarily due to the spectacular visual shows they offer as they blaze through our atmosphere. But what is the science behind the speed of these meteors? Let’s take a deeper dive.

The Origin of Meteors

Before we talk about their speed, it’s essential to understand what meteors are. At the heart of it, a meteor is a space rock—or more scientifically—a meteoroid, that enters the Earth’s atmosphere. When these meteoroids are in space, they are known as asteroids or comets. Once they enter the Earth’s atmosphere and vaporize due to the intense friction, they are called meteors. If they survive the fiery descent and reach the Earth’s surface, they are then termed meteorites.

Factors Influencing Speed of a Meteor

The speed at which a meteor travels is not constant and depends on several factors:

  1. Orbital Speed of the Meteoroid: Meteoroids have their own orbital speeds around the Sun. This speed depends on the size, mass, and distance from the Sun of the meteoroid.
  2. Earth’s Velocity: Our planet moves around the Sun at an average speed of about 29.8 km/s. When meteoroids collide with Earth, their relative speed to Earth will be a combination of their own speed and Earth’s velocity.
  3. Entry Angle: The angle at which the meteoroid enters the Earth’s atmosphere can influence its speed. A steeper angle might lead to a quicker deceleration due to the increased atmospheric resistance, while a shallower angle might allow it to maintain a higher speed for a longer duration.
  4. Mass and Physical Composition: Denser meteoroids tend to maintain their speeds better against the atmospheric drag compared to less dense ones.

Considering the above factors, meteors can have speeds ranging from 11 km/s to 72 km/s (25,000 to 160,000 mph) when they enter the atmosphere. However, the average meteor speed is about 30 km/s (67,000 mph).

Atmospheric Deceleration

The Earth’s atmosphere acts as a protective shield against meteoroids. As these high-speed particles enter the atmosphere, they encounter a massive amount of air particles in a very short period. The intense friction and pressure cause the meteor to heat up rapidly, which leads to the bright streak of light we often see in the sky.

This interaction with the atmosphere slows down the meteor considerably. While high-altitude meteors (shooting stars) can maintain much of their speed, those that come closer to the surface experience a drastic reduction in velocity. In fact, most meteorites (meteors that reach the surface) land at terminal velocities, which can be as “slow” as a few hundred kilometers per hour – quite sedate compared to their initial cosmic speeds.

Notable Fast Meteors and Their Impact

The speed of a meteor can determine the potential threat it might pose to Earth. Faster meteors carry more kinetic energy, which means they can cause more significant damage upon impact. The Chelyabinsk meteor, which exploded over Russia in 2013, is an example. Traveling at a speed of about 19 km/s, its explosion released energy equivalent to over 20 Hiroshima atomic bombs.

Similarly, the Tunguska event of 1908, while still under debate regarding its exact nature, is believed to have been caused by a fast-moving comet fragment or asteroid, resulting in the flattening of over 2,000 square kilometers of Siberian forest.


The speed of a meteor is an amalgamation of cosmic circumstances and physical properties. While these celestial wonders provide us with spectacular light shows and are often harmless, their speeds play a significant role in the potential damage they might inflict upon entry. As we continue to monitor and study these space rocks, understanding their velocities and trajectories is vital for both appreciating their beauty and ensuring our planet’s safety.

How to calculate the speed of a meteor

Calculating the speed of a meteor involves understanding its movement through space and its interaction with the Earth’s atmosphere. For those interested in meteor speeds, both astronomers and amateur observers often employ a combination of observational methods and mathematical calculations. Here’s a step-by-step guide to determining the speed of a meteor:

  1. Establish a Reference Point:Before you can determine the speed of any moving object, you need a frame of reference. For meteors, this often means setting up two or more observation points some distance apart. By doing so, you can capture the trajectory of the meteor from different perspectives, enabling you to triangulate its path and speed.
  2. Time the Meteor’s Flight:
    • Start your stopwatch or time-recording device as soon as you see the meteor appear.
    • Stop timing once the meteor disappears or burns out.
    • This gives you the duration of the meteor’s visible flight across the sky.
  3. Measure the Distance Covered:
    • Using the observations from the multiple points, determine the distance the meteor traveled in the atmosphere.
    • Alternatively, if you know the altitude at which the meteor started burning and where it stopped, you can determine the distance it traveled using trigonometry.
  4. Calculate the Speed:
    • Now that you have the time (t) it took for the meteor to traverse a known distance (d), you can calculate its average speed (v) using the formula:�=��

      Here, ‘d’ is the distance covered by the meteor, and ‘t’ is the time taken.

  5. Compensate for Atmospheric Deceleration:
    • As meteors enter the Earth’s atmosphere, they slow down considerably due to air resistance. Their initial speed upon entry will be higher than the speed when they’re nearer to the ground.
    • If you’re looking to calculate the initial speed as the meteor entered the atmosphere, you’d need a more detailed model that accounts for atmospheric deceleration, which can be complex and might require more advanced tools and measurements.
  6. Use Technology:
    • Today, there are networks of cameras set up to automatically record and triangulate the speed of meteors. These systems, like the All-Sky Fireball Network set up by NASA, use multiple cameras to capture the trajectory of meteors and then use software to automatically calculate their speeds.
    • For amateur astronomers, software and apps exist that can assist in calculating meteor speeds based on observational data.
  7. Remember the Limitations:
    • These methods give you an estimate of the meteor’s speed. Many factors, like atmospheric drag, angle of descent, and the meteor’s composition, can influence its velocity.
    • For a more accurate reading, especially of particularly fast or significant meteors, specialized equipment and expertise might be necessary.

In conclusion, while calculating the speed of a meteor can be approached with relatively basic observational methods, it’s a complex process influenced by various factors. With advances in technology, more precise measurements can be obtained, adding to our understanding of these celestial wonders.

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