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When an object (like a meteor) falls through the atmosphere towards the Earth, why does it start to heat up and glow? Is it because of the compressed air in front of it or because of drag? How do spacecrafts prevent themselves from burning as they hurtle through?

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  • $\begingroup$ There's some very good explanations on how spacecraft are designed to resist the heat generated from re-entry here: quora.com/Why-does-a-spacecraft-heat-up-during-reentry $\endgroup$
    – userLTK
    Oct 25, 2016 at 1:00
  • $\begingroup$ Quote:Is it because of the compressed air in front of it or because of drag? It is both. The air compressed in front of an object entering the atmosphere generates heat. This causes a loss of kinetic energy in the object which is a form of drag. $\endgroup$ Oct 25, 2016 at 1:01
  • $\begingroup$ Relevant resource: Meteors, by Crash Course Astronomy, particularly from around the 3:00 mark. $\endgroup$ Oct 26, 2016 at 16:45

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Friction and especially compression of the air in front with the air heats up the meteor, the closing speed of a meteor approaching in an opposite direction to the earth's orbital motion can be substantial, and the meteor can heat up to 10,000 degrees K. This causes ablation, a removal by heat, of the outer meteor layers.

As the fireball travels through the atmosphere, the hot vapor from ablation is compressed by collisions with atmospheric atoms and molecules. This creates an air cap or hydrodynamic cushion that protects the meteor from direct collisions, which can be seen in the figure below.

enter image description here

This barrier creates two macrostates in front of the meteor: One at 3500-5000K, which we will call the main spectrum, and one at 10000K, which we will call the second spectrum. [source]  

enter image description here

Apollo 12 capsule's ablative heat shield (after use) on display at the Virginia Air and Space Center.

Image Source: Wikipedia Heat Shield Ablation

The ablated heat shield of an Apollo command module

With a space probe, normally it would be impossible to withstand this level of heat, so an ablation heat shield is used, which carries energy away from the spacecraft by, "burning" away like a meteor, but with more control over the ablation of the spacecraft surface by pitching the craft at a specified angle and by creating the ablation shield from composite materials that burn slowly.

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    $\begingroup$ The content of this post is currently debated on meta. $\endgroup$
    – ACuriousMind
    Oct 26, 2016 at 15:23
  • $\begingroup$ I am replacing the overlapping text with a direct quotation and link to the source. If this is a problem, let's talk. $\endgroup$
    – rob
    Oct 28, 2016 at 21:53
  • $\begingroup$ @rob how many aspirin, or beers, have you got, to sustain yourself if I go on a 2 hour rant :) only kidding rob, no problems at all. You did what should have been done, but nobody thought of it, that is get a third party to decide. I'm moving on with no hassle, thanks for your consideration. $\endgroup$
    – user108787
    Oct 28, 2016 at 22:03
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Meteors are moving very fast when they enter the Earth's atmosphere. The frictional forces generated by the collisions with molecules of the atmosphere are responsible for the heating. Spacecraft have ceramic heat shields and insulation for protection from the high temperatures encountered during reentry.

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