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SCIENCE FILE | I Didn't Know That ...

September 12, 1996

Q: What are shooting stars and how fast do they travel?

A: "Shooting star" is another name for a meteor, a chunk of metallic or stony matter that enters the Earth's atmosphere from space. Air friction heats it so that it glows, leaving a bright trail of gases and melted particles.

The chunks that become meteors orbit the sun at speeds ranging up to 26 miles per second. The Earth is moving at 18 miles per second, so a meteor that struck the Earth head-on could have an effective speed as high as 44 miles per second. Most meteors are about the size of a pebble. They become visible about 40 to 75 miles above the Earth's surface and disintegrate at altitudes of 30 to 60 miles.

A meteor that survives to reach the Earth's surface is called a meteorite.

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