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Looking up into the night sky, you’ll often see a beautiful display of stars twinkling in the darkness. And if you’re lucky enough, you may get to see a shooting star. Interestingly enough, that shooting star is actually a meteor burning up in the mesosphere.
Once a meteor passes through the two outside layers of our atmosphere, an increase in the number of gasses and molecular density causes friction. In turn, this friction creates heat, and the meteor begins burning up. To the naked eye, this is what we know as a shooting star.
To properly understand why meteors burn up in the mesosphere, we need to understand the layers of our atmosphere and how they are different. There are five major layers to Earth’s atmosphere and several secondary layers. For this explanation, we will focus on the five major layers.
As meteors enter our atmosphere in the exosphere layer, they are met with essentially no resistance due to the low molecular density. And even as the meteor travels through the thermosphere, a relatively low molecular density still prevents friction.
However, once the meteor hits the mesosphere, the molecular density increases. There are gasses and water vapor present that begin to cause friction. To get an idea of how minimal the change has to be, keep in mind that the air in the mesosphere is still far too thin for humans to be able to breathe.
The friction happens at a molecular level, and that is enough to cause what we see as shooting stars. Occasionally, if a meteor manages to make it through the mesosphere without completely burning up, it may hit the Earth. In this case, it becomes a meteorite.
Our knowledge of the Earth and the universe beyond is increasing exponentially as time moves on. However, we’ve still only scratched the surface of everything there is to know about this blue planet we call home. But next time you see a shooting star, now you know why it’s on fire in the first place, plus where it is located.
Featured Image Credit: Jim Cumming, Shutterstock
Shea Cummings is a passionate content writer who believes that the power of words is immeasurable. He leverages years of experience in various trades such as carpentry, photography, and electrical to bring his articles to life. His goal is to provide his readers with information that delights and informs. When he's not writing you can find him spending time in the outdoors or playing some Minecraft on the Xbox with his wife and two sons.
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