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Why do meteors happen?

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April 19, 2010 8:08PM

Sand sized grains of material or debris from comet tails or asteroid collisions drifts through space. As this material happens to pass close to earth's orbit, tenuous wisps of atmosphere drag it closer within earth's gravitational field. As the material falls through the atmosphere, friction causes it to heat up, ablating the outer layers. Usually, for things about the size of a baseball or smaller, the meteor entirely burns away in the atmosphere. Objects larger than that can strike the ground. When they do so, they are typically extremely cold, as only the surface burns off--and that in such a brief period of time the heat does not have time to propagate through the body. Meteorites (meteors that reach the earth) will be close to the temperature of space when they first hit the earth, but will warm to ambient temperature within minutes to hours--depending on their size. Heat of impact for larger objects may rapidly raise temperature. The heat of impact for a cometary body, for instance, would be enormous.