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Why don't skydivers burn up like meteors?

My third and fourth grade students want to know why meteors burn up as they fall through the atmosphere, but skydivers don't.

Your question is a good one, and the answer is really very simple: meteors travel much, much faster on their way through the atmosphere than any sky diver ever does. Think about how hot your hands get when you rub them together very quickly. Friction creates a lot of heat, because it translates kinetic energy (the energy of motion, that is, of your hands moving back and forth or of your meteor/skydiver falling through the air) into heat energy.

As meteors fall through the atmosphere, they tend to be falling at enormous speeds, around 26 miles per second! That's 93,600 miles per hour, and as you can imagine, that creates a lot of friction and a lot of heat. The surface of the meteor starts to vaporize when it reaches about 1100 degrees Celsius or 2012 degrees Fahrenheit. That's incredibly hot, and skydivers, by contrast, only fall at about 110 miles per hour. Your students will know from their experience that cars can go about this fast, and that they can feel the friction from the atmosphere (like having the window down in a car on the highway), but they also know that this amount of friction doesn't heat their skin.

Your students' intuition is right that similar things happen to meteors and skydivers as they fall through the atmosphere, but the speed makes all the difference in the end.

September 2007, Ann Martin (more by Ann Martin) (Like this Answer)

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