Why you can hear and see meteors at the same time

Radio waves may explain the mysterious phenomenon

meteor shower

OTHERWORLDLY SOUNDS  Falling meteors can be seen and heard at the same time because of sounds generated by radio waves blasted from the falling space rocks, researchers propose.


For centuries, skywatchers have reported seeing and simultaneously hearing meteors whizzing overhead, which doesn’t make sense given that light travels roughly 800,000 times as fast as sound. Now scientists say they have a potential explanation for the paradox.

The sound waves aren’t coming from the meteor itself, atmospheric scientists Michael Kelley of Cornell University and Colin Price of Tel Aviv University propose April 16 in Geophysical Research Letters. As the leading edge of the falling space rock vaporizes, it becomes electrically charged. The charged head produces an electric field, which yields an electric current that blasts radio waves toward the ground. As a type of electromagnetic radiation, radio waves travel at the speed of light and can interact with metal objects near the ground, generating a whistling sound that people can hear.

Just 0.1 percent of the radio wave energy needs to be converted into sound for the noise to be audible as the meteor zips by, the researchers estimate. This same process could explain mysterious noises heard during the aurora borealis, or northern lights (SN: 8/9/14, p. 32). Like meteors, auroras have been known to emit radio wave bursts.

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