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meteor, appearance of a small particle flying through space that interacts with the earth's upper atmosphere. While still outside the atmosphere, the particle is known as a meteoroid. Countless meteoroids of varying sizes are moving about the solar system at any time. Perhaps a billion meteoroids a day enter the atmosphere, their speeds ranging from 10 to 45 mi (16–72 km) per sec. They experience friction due to collisions with the atmosphere; by the time they reach 50 to 75 mi (80–120 km) from the earth's surface, they have been heated to incandescence through friction and are visible as “shooting stars,” or “falling stars.” Most meteors disintegrate completely before they reach the earth; those large enough to reach the ground are called meteorites. (Some dust-sized particles are so small and light, however, that they float down through the atmosphere without heating up due to friction.) A meteor of considerable duration and brightness is known as a fireball; a fireball that breaks apart with an explosion is a bolide. The brightest fireball ever recorded fell in the Tunguska Basin, Siberia, in 1908, causing the destruction of forest over an area of about 770 sq mi (2,000 sq km). In 2013 a considerably smaller meteor injured some 1,200 people in Chelyabinsk, Russia, when shock waves from its explosion high in the atmosphere shattered glass in many buildings. Meteoroids are composed of stone, iron, or a mixture of stone and iron, with other metals present in very small proportions. Other meteoroids, the carbonaceous chondrites, are stony with a large amount of carbon. Although most meteoroids are quite small, and even though only a very small fraction of them reach the earth's surface, their large quantity accounts for several tons of matter falling on the earth each day. A single observer under a dark sky can see an average of 5 to 10 meteors per hour; more during a meteor shower. More meteors are visible after midnight because the earth's rotation has then positioned the observer's part of the earth in the direction of the earth's motion about the sun. The frequency of meteors also increases when the earth passes through certain swarms of particles that intersect the earth's orbit. Such meteor showers are named for the constellation from which they appear to originate.
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(mee -tee-er, -or) The streak of light seen in the clear night sky when a small particle of interplanetary dust (a meteoroid) burns itself out in the Earth's upper atmosphere. On a clear moonless night at a time away from meteor showers the dark-adapted eye can see about 10 per hour, the eye detecting meteors down to about fifth visual magnitude. The most probable magnitude seen is +2.5, 75% of the meteors observed having magnitudes in the range 3.75 to 0.75. The visual rate maximizes at about 04.00 local time when the observer is on the leading side of the Earth, ‘plowing’ into the cosmic dust cloud. The meteoroid enters the atmosphere at velocities between 11 and 74 km s–1 depending on whether the Earth just catches up the particle or they have a head-on collision. The ablating meteoroid not only leaves behind it a train of excited atoms that de-excite to produce the brief blaze of light – a visual meteor – but it also produces a column of ionized atoms and molecules (both atmospheric and meteoric) that can act as reflectors of radar pulses transmitted from ground-based telescopes – a radio meteor. The meteoroid dissipates its energy, distributes its disaggregated atoms and molecules, and produces the visual and radio meteor in the region between 70 km and 115 km above the Earth's surface. The mean altitude of maximum luminosity and electron density is 97 km.

A large percentage of the mass influx to the Earth's atmosphere (which totals some 220 000 tonnes per year) is made up of particles in the size range that produce visual and radio meteors, i.e. one millionth to one million grams. The meteoroid has a kinetic energy considerably in excess of the energy required to vaporize itself. Air molecules striking the meteoroid have a kinetic energy of about 400 electronvolts. As the binding energy of the atoms in the meteoroid is a few electronvolts, a hundred or so meteoroid atoms boil off for each adsorbed air molecule. The meteoroid starts to ablate at about 115 km. These ablated atoms then collide with the surrounding air molecules and by losing energy in these collisions produce excitation and ionization. After ten or so collisions the energy of the ablated atom has dropped below the excitation potential of the air molecules and ionization and excitation no longer occur. The ablated atom has moved about 50 cm from the meteoroid path during this process. The small meteoroid is completely evaporated after intercepting an air mass about 1% of its own mass. Owing to these processes the meteoroid train has a length of between 7 and 20 km and a width of about 100 cm. A 4th-magnitude meteor contains around 1018 electrons and 1018 positive ions. The atoms quickly de-excite and electrons and positive ions recombine and become attached to other atmospheric molecules. The time duration is related to the magnitude but is usually less than a second.

The meteor spectrum is a low-excitation one, ionization potentials lying in the range 1.9 to 13.9 volts (equivalent to temperatures roughly 1600 to 4800 K). The Ca II lines, H and K, are the main features of fast meteors whereas Na I, Mg I, and Fe I are dominant in slow ones.

Collins Dictionary of Astronomy © Market House Books Ltd, 2006
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a phenomenon observed in the upper atmosphere upon the entry of a solid particle—a meteoroid—into the atmosphere. As a result of interaction with the atmosphere, meteoroids lose partially or almost entirely their initial mass; in the process, luminosity is produced and ionized trails of the meteoroid are formed. A meteor that is not very bright is a starlike object that appears abruptly, moves rapidly across the night sky, and fades. Because of this, meteors were formerly called falling stars. Extremely bright meteors, whose luminosity exceeds that of all the stars and planets (that is, brighter than a stellar magnitude of approximately —4), are called bolides; the brightest ones can be observed even in sunlight. The remnants of meteoroids that produce very bright bolides may strike the surface of the earth as meteorites. Upon the intrusion of a more or less compact group of meteoroids into the earth’s atmosphere—when the earth encounters a meteor swarm—a meteor stream is observed; the denser streams are called meteor showers. Single meteors not belonging to any stream are called sporadic.

The science of meteors comprises the physical theory of meteors, which studies the interaction of meteoroids with the atmosphere and the processes occurring in meteor trails; meteor astronomy, which studies the structure, evolution, and origin of meteoric material in interplanetary space; and meteor geophysics, which studies the parameters of the upper atmosphere through observations of meteors and the ways the influx of meteoric material influence these parameters.

History Meteors and bolides have been known to man since antiquity and are reflected in the legends and myths of many peoples (for example, in the ancient Greek myth of Phaethon or in Russian legends about the zmei-gorynychi, or dragons). The first information on meteors appears in an ancient Egyptian papyrus of 2000 B.C., now preserved in the State Hermitage in Leningrad. Recordings of meteor observations are encountered repeatedly in ancient Chinese manuscripts, beginning in 1768 B.C. The earliest accounts of meteors and bolides in ancient Russian chronicles date to 1091, 1110, 1144, and 1215.

Attempts to provide a scientific explanation of meteors were made by ancient Greek philosophers. Diogenes of Apollonia (fifth century B.C.) believed meteors to be invisible stars that fall to the earth and fade. Anaxagoras (fifth century B.C.) regarded them as fragments of the red-hot stony mass of the sun. Aristotle (fourth century B.C.), in contrast, considered them to be terrestrial vapors that ignited upon reaching the fiery region of the sky. Most ancient and medieval philosophers and scholars adhered to a similar hypothesis, known as the meteorological (that is, atmospheric) hypothesis of the nature of meteors.

In 1794, E. Chladni proved the cosmic origin of a large iron meteorite, the Pallas iron, which was brought to St. Petersburg from the banks of the Enisei by P. Pallas. Chladni correctly explained meteors and bolides as phenomena associated with the entry into the earth’s atmosphere of extraterrestrial bodies. In 1798 the heights of 22 meteors were determined for the first time from simultaneous observations from two points located 14 km apart. During the Leonid meteor shower of 1832–33, many observers noted that the apparent paths of the meteors diverged from one point of the celestial sphere—the radiant—and on this basis concluded that the trajectories of all meteoroids in the stream that caused the meteor shower were parallel, that is, that these bodies were moving in adjacent orbits. The meteor showers that were observed in 1799, 1832–33, 1866, 1872, and 1885 attracted many scientists to the study of meteors, including B. la. Shveitser, M. M. Gusev, and F. A. Bredikhin in Russia, D. F. Arago and J. Biot in France, F. Bessel and A. von Humboldt in Germany, W. Denning in England, G. Schiaparelli in Italy, and H. Newton in the United States. The connection between meteor streams and comets was discovered, the orbits of a number of meteor streams were calculated, and catalogs of a large number of radiants of meteor streams were compiled from the data of systematic visual observations. In 1885, L. Weinek in Prague obtained the first photograph of a meteor. In 1893, W. Elkin in the United States used a rotating shutter to determine the angular velocity of meteors from photographic observations. In 1904 and 1907, S. N. Blazhko in Moscow obtained the first photographs of meteor spectra. In 1929–31, H. Nagaoka in Japan, N. A. Ivanov in the USSR, and A. Skellett in the United States observed the effects of meteor ionization on radio-wave propagation. The first radar observations of meteors were conducted between 1942 and 1944. The foundations of the modern physical theory of meteors were laid between 1923 and 1934.

Methods of studying meteors The methods used to investigate meteors include (1) direct observation, (2) modeling of various processes associated with meteors under laboratory conditions and in space experiments, (3) the study of meteoric material in interplanetary space and the material’s interaction with the earth by recording the impact of meteoroids with sensors mounted on spacecraft, (4) observations of the zodiacal light, (5) the study of meteorites, and (6) the collection of dust of cosmic origin found on the surface of the earth, in deep-water ocean deposits, and in fossil ice in the arctic and antarctic.

Before the late 19th century, visual observations were virtually the only method of studying meteors. They provided some idea of the daily and seasonal variations in the number of meteors and the distribution of meteor radiants over the celestial sphere. By the mid-20th century, however, visual observations, including telescopic ones, lost much of their importance. Photographic and radar observations began providing the principal data on meteors. Experiments with photoelectric, electron-optical, and television methods of observations are being conducted.

Systematic photographic observations of meteors using meteor patrols were begun in the 1930’s. Simultaneous observations from two stations separated by a distance of the order of 30 km make it possible to measure the height of meteors and the orientation of their trajectories. If one of the photographic units is equipped with a rotating shutter that periodically interrupts the exposure, the photograph of the meteor is discontinuous. By measuring the distance between interruptions, it is possible to measure the velocity of meteors at different parts of the trajectory and thus their retardation in the atmosphere. The orbit of the meteoroid that gave rise to a particular meteor can be calculated from these data. Prisms or diffraction gratings mounted in front of camera objectives make it possible to photograph the spectra of meteors.

The method of radar observations of meteors is based on detecting a radio wave reflected from the ionized trail of the meteor—the echo. As a result of the diffraction of the radio waves on the developing meteor trail, the echo amplitude fluctuates in time. By measuring the distances between the various maxima of the diffraction pattern of the echo, the velocity of the meteor can be calculated if the distance to the meteor is known. If several receivers located 5–50 km apart are used, then the orientation of the meteor trail can also be determined and the orbit of the meteoroid before its entry into the earth’s atmosphere can be calculated.

The most powerful installations for electronic meteor-monitoring equipment make it possible to study very faint meteors, down to a stellar magnitude of + 12 to + 15, which are produced by meteoroids with masses from 10-6 to 10-7g. Radio observations of meteors can be conducted 24 hours a day and in any weather. However, such observations are less accurate than photographic observations. The most intensive photographic and radar observations of meteors are conducted in the USSR, the United States, Czechoslovakia, Great Britain, and Australia.

Sensors “mounted on spacecraft make it possible to record the impact of meteoroids weighing 10-7–10-11 g. However, from such observations it is not possible to calculate velocities and trajectory orientations.

Interaction of meteoroids with the atmosphere Meteoroids moving in elliptical orbits around the sun enter the earth’s atmosphere with velocities ranging from 11 to 73 km/sec. Thus, the initial kinetic energy of meteoroids is much greater than the energy required for the complete vaporization of the meteoroids, and the initial velocity is substantially greater than the thermal velocity of air molecules. The nature of the interaction with the atmosphere depends on the mass of the meteoroid. If the dimensions of the meteoroid are much less than the mean free path of the molecules in the upper atmosphere, then interaction takes place by the impact of individual molecules on the surface of the meteoroid. An incident molecule gives up fully or partially its momentum and kinetic energy to the meteoroid. This leads to the deceleration, heating up, and pulverization of the meteoroid. When the surface temperature of the meteoroid increases to approximately 2000°K, intensive vaporization commences and further rise in temperature is abruptly slowed down. In addition to pulverization and vaporization, the material of the meteoroid can be lost through fragmentation—the separation from the meteoroid of smaller solid particles or droplets; this is called ablation. When a number of small particles simultaneously separate from a meteor, a brief increase in the meteor’s brightness occurs. Very small meteoroids with masses less than approximately 10 g decelerate at altitudes of 110–130 km without heating to the initial temperature of intensive vaporization, and their kinetic energy is spent chiefly on thermal radiation from the surface of the meteoroid. After losing part of their initial mass through pulverization, such small meteoroids then fall to the earth in the form of micrometeorites. Without losing their cosmic velocity, that is, velocity prior to encountering the earth’s atmosphere, meteoroids with masses greater than 10~9 g penetrate the denser layers of the atmosphere, where energy losses through thermal radiation are comparatively small. Meteoroids with masses ranging from 10~9 to 10 g, which produce meteors with a stellar magnitude ranging from +20 to —4, lose their initial mass almost entirely by the time they have completed their deceleration in the atmosphere.

A shock wave is formed during passage through the atmosphere of the still larger meteoroids, with which bright bolides are associated. This leads to a decrease in heat transfer and consequently less of the initial mass is lost before the body loses its cosmic velocity. The decelerated remnants of such large meteoroids may impact with the earth as meteorites. Extremely large meteoroids, with initial masses of tens of thousands of tons or more, may reach the earth while partially retaining their cosmic velocity. On impact with the earth, a powerful explosion takes place, possibly leading to the formation of a meteorite crater.

Spectra of meteors and chemical composition of meteoroids It has been established from the study of the spectra of bright meteors of stellar magnitude +1 to —10 that the radiation of meteors consists primarily of bright emission lines of atomic spectra with much weaker molecular bands. A weak continuous background is sometimes observed. The most intense lines in the spectra of meteors are produced by atoms and ions: Fe, Na, Mg, Mg+, Ca, Ca+ , Cr, Si+ , N, and O. These chemical elements are also found in meteorites. Like meteorites, meteoroids are divided into iron and stony types, the stony predominating. However, the lack of data on the effective excitation cross sections for collisions of meteor atoms with atmospheric molecules prevents any quantitative chemical analysis of meteoroids from the observed spectra of meteors.

The effectiveness of the ionization process is usually characterized by the coefficient of meteor ionization β—the mean number of free electrons produced by one meteor atom released as a result of ablation. Available data on the effective ionization cross sections during collisions of various meteor atoms with atmospheric molecules have made it possible to derive the following dependence of β on the velocity of the meteor:

Here V is expressed in cm/sec. For the velocities with which meteors move through the atmosphere, β varies from approximately 0.001 to 1. After the passage of a meteor, an ionized meteor trail several kilometers to several tens of kilometers long remains. The electron line density a of the trail is related to the visual absolute stellar magnitude of the meteor by the approximate expression

m = 35.1 - 2.5 log α

where α is expressed in cm -1. The initial radius r0 of the ionized meteor trail is determined by the process of thermal diffusion during the establishment of thermal equilibrium of the trail with the surrounding atmosphere and may reach a few meters. The radius ro increases with the height and velocity of the meteor; this results in a decrease in the electron density per unit volume of the trail and a deterioration in the conditions for observing rapid high-altitude meteors by radar observation. The ability of ionized meteor trails to reflect radio waves is used for radio communications in the ultrashort-wave region.

Heights of meteors The heights at which meteors become visible usually lie in the range 80–130 km and increase with the velocity of the meteor. The heights at which meteors disappear usually lie in the range 60–100 km and also increase with the velocity of the meteor and with the transition from brighter to fainter meteors. Very bright bolides may disappear at heights of 20–40 km.

Fragmentation and structure of meteoroids Fragmentation of a large proportion of meteoroids producing meteors of stellar magnitude 0 to +4 is evident from photographic observations. Small fragments of meteoroids undergo greater deceleration, resulting in the appearance of the luminous tails of meteors. Fragmentation leads to increased deceleration of meteors and to a shortening of their visible path. Fragmentation may be explained by the friable structure of a meteoroid with very low density (less than 1 g/cm3) and by the peculiarities of the atmospheric ablation of dense stony and iron meteoroids. These peculiarities are associated with the heterogeneity of the meteoroid’s composition and with the process of the blowing off of the molten film from the surface of the meteoroid.

Influx of meteoric material to earth At an average extra-atmospheric velocity of 40 km/sec, the approximate dependence of the maximum visual absolute stellar magnitude of a meteor m on the initial mass of the meteoroid Mo (expressed in grams) has the form

m = -2.5 - 2.5 log M0

The distribution of meteoroids by mass is usually represented by the power law N ~ M0-s, where the exponent s is close to 2. By counting the total number of meteors in the earth’s atmosphere in a 24-hour period, it is possible to estimate the influx of meteoric material: an average of a few tens of tons of meteoric material strike the earth in one day. The influx of meteoric material has a significant effect on the mixed gaseous, ionic, and aerosol composition of the upper atmosphere and on a number of processes therein, such as the formation of noctilucent clouds and sporadic Es layers of the ionosphere.


Fesenkov, V. G. Meteornaia materiia v mezhduplanetnom prostranstve. Moscow-Leningrad, 1947.
Fedynskii, V. V. Meteory. Moscow, 1956.
Levin, B. lu. Fizicheskaia teoriia meteorov i meteornoe veshchestvo v solnechnoi sisteme. Moscow, 1956.
Astapovich, I. S. Meteornye iavleniia v atmosfere ZemlL Moscow, 1958.
Lowell, B. Meteornaia astronomiia. Moscow, 1958. (Translated from English.)
McKinley, D. Metody meteornoi astronomii. Moscow, 1964. (Translated from English.)
Babadzhanov, P. B., and E. N. Kramer. Metody i nekotorye rezuVtaty fotograficheskikh issledovanii meteorov. Moscow, 1963.
Kashcheev, B. L., V. N. Lebedinets, and M. F. Lagutin. Meteornye iavleniia v atmosfere Zemli. Moscow, 1967.




the Soviet space meteorological system; also, the Meteor satellite. The Meteor system includes the Meteor weather satellite, certain satellites of the Cosmos series, ground stations for receiving, processing, and transmitting meteorological data, and equipment for monitoring the condition of the satellites’ on-board systems and controlling them. The Meteor system began functioning with the Cosmos 144 and Cosmos 156 artificial earth satellites, which were launched on Feb. 28 and Apr. 27, 1967, respectively. A two-satellite system makes it possible to obtain meteorological data from half the planet’s surface during a 24-hour period.

With several satellites simultaneously in orbit, the problems of controlling them and the system as a whole become considerably more complicated. In the normal operation of the Meteor system, the telemetry information, containing meteorological data and data on the operation of on-board equipment, must be processed rapidly during the passage of each weather satellite over a receiving station. This information is fed to high-speed electronic computers, which almost immediately after completion of communication with the satellite finish processing all the telemetry data, edit it, and print it out in a convenient form (such as graphs or charts). These materials are quickly relayed to meteorological institutes in the USSR and abroad.

Meteor substantially increases the reliability of weather fore-casts and makes possible the detection of powerful cyclones and typhoons in the ocean, the selection of optimum routes for the merchant and fishing fleets, the determination of the limits of the ice pack in arctic regions, including the Northern Sea Route, and the acquisition of data on regions of stable rainfall (for agriculture). The information from Meteor is important for the development of the theory of the general circulation of the atmosphere and for the creation of a reliable methodology for long-range weather forecasting.




a German expeditionary ship built in 1915 in Gdansk (Danzig). Displacement, 1,200 tons; length, 71 m; width, 10.2 m.

The Meteor had sails and was equipped for meteorological, hydrological, and biological research. Expeditions on board the ship carried out the first multifaceted oceanographic investigations of the southern (1925–27) and northern (1928–30, 1933, 1935, 1938) parts of the Atlantic Ocean. In 1926 the Meteor discovered the maximum depth of the South Sandwich Trench (8,264 m).

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

What does it mean when you dream about a meteor?

Ancient peoples believed that witnessing a meteor streaking across the sky or possessing a piece of a meteor meant that the gods had bestowed a gift from the heavens, which is where the custom of wishing upon a falling star derived. Seeing a meteor in a dream may symbolize a strong desire of the dreamer’s or suggest that the dreamer is merely engaging in wishful thinking with regard to some aspect of his or her life.

The Dream Encyclopedia, Second Edition © 2009 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.


The phenomena which accompany a body from space (a meteoroid) in its passage through the atmosphere, including the flash and streak of light and the ionized trail.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


1. a very small meteoroid that has entered the earth's atmosphere. Such objects have speeds approaching 70 kilometres per second
2. the bright streak of light appearing in the sky due to the incandescence of such a body heated by friction at its surface
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005


A version of COMIT with Lisp-like syntax, written in MIT Lisp 1.5 for the IBM 7090. "METEOR - A List Interpreter for String Transformation", D.G. Bobrow in The Programming Language LISP and its Interpretation, E.D. and D.G. Bobrow eds, 1964.
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