Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Reentry

Painting of space shuttle Columbia during reentry

A bright star streaks across the sky, leaving behind a glowing trail that soon fades back into the blackness of the night sky, leaving no perceptible trace. A minute later, another streak appears; this one has faint hues of pink and orange. Each streak lasts only a couple seconds, but its quiet beauty is not easily forgotten.

Maybe I could write a kid's book about it:
Fast star, slow star
Red star, blue star

The sight I'm describing is called a meteor (as I'm sure you already know). Meteors have been observed for as long as humans have existed, and have been a mystery for almost as long. It didn't take long to figure out  that they occurred high in the atmosphere - in fact, the name "meteor" was originally used for any atmospheric event - but it wasn't until the 19th century that somebody finally realized what they actually were: small bits of space debris burning up as they fell through the sky.

The question that naturally comes next: how does a meteor get so hot?