Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 1.djvu/400

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386
THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

surface of the earth; when they do, they are called balls of fire; and occasionally they reach the earth before they are completely burnt out or evaporated; they are then termed meteoric stones, aërolites, or meteoric iron. They are also divided into accidental meteors and meteoric showers, according as to whether they traverse the heavens in every direction at random, or appear in great numbers following a common path, thus indicating that they are parts of a great whole.

It is now generally received, and placed almost beyond doubt by the recent observations of Schiaparelli, Le Verrier, Weiss, and others, that these meteors, for the most part small, but weighing occasionally many tons, are fragmentary masses, revolving, like the planets, round the sun, which in their course approach the earth, and, drawn by its attraction into our atmosphere, are set on fire by the heat generated through the resistance offered by the compressed air.

The chemical analysis of those meteors which have fallen to the earth in a half-burnt condition in the form of meteoric stones proves that they are composed only of terrestrial elements, which present a form and combination commonly met with in our planet. Their chief constituent is metallic iron, mixed with various silicious compounds; in combination with iron, nickel is always found, and sometimes also cobalt, copper, tin, and chromium; among the silicates, olivine is especially worthy of remark as a mineral very abundant in volcanic rocks, as also augite. There have also been found, in the meteoric stones hitherto examined, oxygen, hydrogen, sulphur, phosphorus, carbon, aluminium, magnesium, calcium, sodium, potassium, manganese, titanium, lead, lithium, and strontium.

The height at which meteors appear is very various, and ranges chiefly between the limits of 46 and 92 miles; the mean may be taken at 66 miles. The speed at which they travel is also various, generally about half as fast again as that of the earth's motion round the sun, or about 26 miles in a second: the maximum and minimum differ greatly from this amount, the velocity of some meteors being estimated at 14 miles, and that of others at 107 miles in a second.

When a dark meteorite of this kind, having a velocity of 1,660 miles per minute, encounters the earth, flying through space at a mean rate of 1,140 miles per minute, and when through the earth's attraction its velocity is further increased 2.30 miles per minute, this body meets with such a degree of resistance, even in the highest and most rarefied state of our atmosphere, that it is impeded in its course, and loses in a very short time a considerable part of its momentum. By this encounter there follows a result common to all bodies which, while in motion, suddenly experience a check When a wheel revolves very rapidly, the axletree or the drag which is placed under the wheel is made red-hot by the friction. When a cannon-ball strikes suddenly with great velocity against a plate of iron, which constantly happens at target-practice, a spark is seen to flash from the ball even in day-