How Earth’s Atmosphere Burns Meteors, Comets, and Other Space Debris

Earth Atmopshere

Outer Space is full of potentially dangerous objects – objects such as asteroids, comets, meteoroids, and even man-made satellites that pose a risk to our planet.  While the vast majority of such objects are not on a path to collide with our own planet, some occasionally are.  Without the protection offered by our atmosphere, meteors, comets, and other such space debris would crash into the Earth’s surface, potentially causing significant damage.  So – how exactly does our atmosphere protect us?

An atmosphere is a layer of gasses that surrounds some planets.  This layer of gasses is held in place by gravity.  The actual gasses that compose a planet’s atmosphere vary greatly, depending on which gasses may be present at a given planet, along with the gravitational forces that are specific to a planet.  Earth’s atmosphere is made up of the following gasses:

  • Oxygen
  • Nitrogen
  • Methane
  • Helium
  • Krypton
  • Hydrogen
  • Neon
  • Argon
  • Carbon Dioxide

Nitrogen makes up the greatest percentage of Earth’s atmosphere, at about 78%.  Oxygen, makes up the second largest portion of our atmosphere, at about 21%.  The remaining gasses make up the remaining portion in small amounts, all being under 1% of total atmospheric composition.

Objects Burning Up in Earth's Atmosphere

Objects Burning Up in Earth's Atmosphere

Without an atmosphere, objects like meteors would be free to crash into the surface of our planet.  Fortunately, our atmosphere is able to protect us from such potential disasters by actually burning up such objects before they have had a chance to hit the surface of Earth.  The reason space debris burns up in our atmosphere is because such objects fly towards Earth at great speeds.  As these objects pass through the atmosphere, atmospheric gasses compress very quickly.  This generates great amounts of heat, burning the objects up as they fly through.  During this pass through the atmosphere, temperatures can reach as high as 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit (1650 degrees Celsius)!

While the atmosphere does provide essential protection from the majority of objects that would otherwise crash into our planet, it can’t stop everything.  Despite the high temperatures, some objects still manage to reach Earth’s surface, such as meteorites.  While smaller objects hitting our surface are usually harmless, huge objects, such as large asteroids, could pass through our atmosphere without burning up completely and cause mass destruction.  While such an occurrence happening during our lifetime is extremely unlikely, having it happen at some point isn’t impossible.  In fact, many scientists believe that dinosaurs became extinct due to a large object crashing into Earth!

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