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Watching the Sky Fall: Visualizing a Century of Meteorites

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Watching the Sky Fall: Visualizing a Century of Meteorites

Watching the Sky Fall: Visualizing a Century of Meteorites

Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson once said “The chances that your tombstone will read ‘Killed by an Asteroid’ are about the same as they’d be for ‘Killed in Airplane Crash’.”

Part of the reason for this is the Earth’s atmospheric ability to burn up inbound space rocks before they reach the surface, a process that ensures that most meteors never become meteorites.

Of the 33,162 meteorites found in the past 100 years, only 625 were seen. Today’s visualization from data designer Tiffany Farrant-Gonzalez groups these 625 observed meteorites by the year they fell, classification, mass, and landing location on Earth.

Asteroid, Meteoroids, Meteors, and Meteorites

Not all flying space rocks are the same. Their origins and trajectories define its type.

Asteroid: A large rocky body in space, in orbit around the Sun.
Meteoroid: Much smaller rocks or particles in orbit around the Sun.
Meteor: If a meteoroid enters the Earth’s atmosphere and vaporizes, it becomes a meteor, or a shooting star.
Meteorite: If a small asteroid or large meteoroid survives its fiery passage through the Earth’s atmosphere and lands on Earth’s surface.
Bolide: A very bright meteor that often explodes in the atmosphere, also known as a fireball.

Classification

This graphic classifies meteorites into four types based on their composition: stony, stony-iron, iron and other.

StonyStony-IronIronOther
Achondites
Chrondites
Unclassifed
Mesoiderites
Pallasites
Magmatic
Non-magmatic or Primitive
Doubtful Meteorites
Pseudometeorite

Top 5 Meteorites by Size

While half of all observed meteorites weighed less than 2.5 kg (5.5 lbs), there are a few exceptional ones that stand out. The graphic highlights the five largest meteorites ever observed, and when they fell:

LocatonSizeYearType
Sikhote-Alin, Russia23 MT1947Iron
Jilin, China4 MT1976Stony
Allende, Mexico2 MT1969Stony
Norton County, USA1.1 MT1948Stony
Kunya-Urgench, Turkmenistan1.1 MT1998Stony

Each category differs in their amount of iron-nickel metal and what they reveal about the early solar system.

Fireballs in the Sky: Bolides

Small asteroids frequently enter and disintegrate in Earth’s atmosphere randomly around the globe, creating fireballs known as bolides. NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program mapped data gathered by U.S. government sensors from 1994 to 2013.

Source: NASA

The data indicates that small asteroids impacted Earth’s atmosphere, resulting in a bolide (or fireball), on 556 separate occasions over a 20-year period. Almost all asteroids of this size disintegrate in the atmosphere and are harmless.

A notable exception was the Chelyabinsk event in 2013, which was the largest known natural object to have entered Earth’s atmosphere since the 1908 Tunguska event. A house-sized asteroid entered the atmosphere over Chelyabinsk at over 11 miles per second, and blew apart 14 miles above the ground.

The explosion released an energy equivalent to ~440,000 tons of TNT, generating a shock wave that shattered windows over 200 square miles—damaging several buildings and injuring over 1,600 people.

Look Out Above

While the night sky appears to be a beautiful tableau of the cosmos, these two visualizations paint a dramatic galactic battle. Rocks inundate our planet as it moves through the darkness of space. The resiliency of Earth’s atmosphere to erode these invaders has allowed life to flourish⁠—until the next big one comes through.

Remember the Dinosaurs?

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Environment

As the Worlds Turn: Visualizing the Rotation of Planets

Rotation can have a big influence on a planet’s habitability. These animations show how each planet in the solar system moves to its own distinct rhythm.

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As the Worlds Turn: Visualizing the Rotations of Planets

The rotation of planets have a dramatic effect on their potential habitability.

Dr. James O’Donoghue, a planetary scientist at the Japanese space agency who has the creative ability to visually communicate space concepts like the speed of light and the vastness of the solar system, recently animated a video showing cross sections of different planets spinning at their own pace on one giant globe.

Cosmic Moves: The Rotation of the Planets

Each planet in the solar system moves to its own rhythm. The giant gas planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune) spin more rapidly on their axes than the inner planets. The sun itself rotates slowly, only once a month.

PlanetRotation Periods (relative to stars)
Mercury58d 16h
Venus243d 26m
Earth23h 56m
Mars24h 36m
Jupiter9h 55m
Saturn10h 33m
Uranus17h 14m
Neptune16h

The planets all revolve around the sun in the same direction and in virtually the same plane. In addition, they all rotate in the same general direction, with the exceptions of Venus and Uranus.

In the following animation, their respective rotation speeds are compared directly:

The most visually striking result of planetary spin is on Jupiter, which has the fastest rotation in the solar system. Massive storms of frozen ammonia grains whip across the surface of the gas giant at speeds of 340 miles (550 km) per hour.

Interestingly, the patterns of each planet’s rotation can help in revealing whether they can support life or not.

Rotation and Habitability

As a fish in water is not aware it is wet, so it goes for humans and the atmosphere around us.

New research reveals that the rate at which a planet spins is an essential component for supporting life. Not only does rotation control the length of day and night, bit it influences atmospheric wind patterns and the formation of clouds.

The radiation the Earth receives from the Sun concentrates at the equator. The Sun heats the air in this region until it rises up through the atmosphere and moves towards the poles of the planet where it cools. This cool air falls through the atmosphere and flows back towards the equator.

This process is known as a Hadley cell, and atmospheres can have multiple cells:

Hadley Cells

A planet with a quick rotation forms Hadley cells at low latitudes into different bands that encircle the planet. Clouds become prominent at tropical regions, which reflect a proportion of the light back into space.

For a planet in a tighter orbit around its star, the radiation received from the star is much more extreme. This decreases the temperature difference between the equator and the poles, ultimately weakening Hadley cells. The result is fewer clouds in tropical regions available to protect the planet from intense heat, making the planet uninhabitable.

Slow Rotators: More Habitable

If a planet rotates slower, then the Hadley cells can expand to encircle the entire world. This is because the difference in temperature between the day and night side of the planet creates larger atmospheric circulation.

Slow rotation makes days and nights longer, such that half of the planet bathes in light from the sun for an extended period of time. Simultaneously, the night side of the planet is able to cool down.

This difference in temperature is large enough to cause the warm air from the day side to flow to the night side. This movement of air allows more clouds to form around a planet’s equator, protecting the surface from harmful space radiation, encouraging the possibility for the right conditions for life to form.

The Hunt for Habitable Planets

Measuring the rotation of planets is difficult with a telescope, so another good proxy would be to measure the level of heat emitted from a planet.

An infrared telescope can measure the heat emitted from a planet’s clouds that formed over its equator. An unusually low temperature at the hottest location on the planet could indicate that the planet is potentially a habitable slow rotator.

Of course, even if a planet’s rotation speed is just right, many other conditions come into play. The rotation of planets is just another piece in the puzzle in identifying the next Earth.

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Misc

Visualizing the U.S. Airports with the Worst Flight Delays

With flight travel more than tripling in the past 30 years, we break down the most notorious airports in the U.S. with the worst flight delays.

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Visualizing the U.S. Airports with the Worst Flight Delays

They say good things come to those who wait. In the case of flight passengers, however, some may be waiting much longer than others.

With frequent flights comes frequent problems. Unexpected travel irritations, delays, and cancellations are all common issues faced by flyers the world over. Correspondingly, certain airports have developed a reputation for making their passengers wait.

Today’s interactive chart from USAFacts shows the percentage of flights delayed, as well as the average length of those delays, at U.S. airports between October 2018 and September 2019.

The Top 10 Airports With the Longest Delays

In the worst airports across the country, over 25% of all flights get delayed. Here is a list of the top offenders based on percentage of flights delayed and the average delay, according to flight data.

RankCity
AirportPercent of Flights Arriving LateAverage Delay Across Flights
#1NewarkNewark Liberty International 26.5%22 minutes
#2New YorkLaGuardia24.5%19.6 minutes
#3ChicagoChicago O'Hare International 25.5%19.2 minutes
#4BostonLogan International22%17.3 minutes
#5DallasDallas/Fort Worth International23.3%16.5 minutes
#6San FranciscoSan Francisco International22.4%16.2 minutes
#7Fort LauderdaleFort Lauderdale-Hollywood International21.9%16.3 minutes
#8DenverDenver International21.6%15.3 minutes
#9MiamiMiami International21.6%15.3 minutes
#10ChicagoChicago Midway22%13.4 minutes

Newark Liberty International takes the top spot, with 26.5% of all flights taking off late. To make matters worse, it also had the longest average delay time, at 22 minutes per flight. The runner-up is another New York-based airport, LaGuardia, averaging close to 20 minutes per flight delay.

The third worst offender was Chicago O’Hare International airport, where over a quarter of flights arrived late, with an average delay of 19 minutes. Chicago O’Hare International saw more flights than Newark and LaGuardia combined, making average delays more costly.

What’s Behind These Major Flight Delays?

While the New York area hosts two of the worst airports in the country, flight delays are exacerbated by a number of regional factors.

First, it hosts one of the busiest air corridors worldwide. As a result, any unexpected interruption or delay has an outsized effect on flights arriving at their destination on time.

Coupled with this is the commanding presence of United Airlines. As one of the largest airlines in the world, it operates over 401 daily flights at Newark airport. Additionally, United has been known to have operational issues. For example, in June 2019, significant aircraft problems led the Newark airport to suspend flights altogether.

There are four major causes of flight delays: poor weather conditions, late aircraft, carrier related (such as baggage, fueling, or maintenance problems), and airspace system issues.

cause of airport flight delays

According to this data, it’s clear that late aircraft is the most prevalent cause for flight delays that ended up being longer than 15 minutes.

Late aircraft creates a domino effect: when an airplane arrives late at an airport, a following flight that uses the same aircraft will depart behind schedule. In peak months such as July, this contributes to nearly 50% of flight delays.

Worst Months of the Year to Fly

The number of flights on U.S. airlines has more than tripled, from 275 million flights in 1978 to 889 million in 2018.

Along with this, flight activity is typically highest in the summer—coinciding with July’s highest average flight delay of 76 minutes. Months in the summer followed suit, with June averaging 72 minutes per delay and August having an average delay of 71 minutes, among flights that were delayed over 15 minutes.

MonthRankAverage Delay (in minutes)
July176
June272
August371
April471
May570
February669
January

768
September867
March965
November1062
December1160
October1259

Perhaps surprisingly, flights in December bucked this trend. Even as a flight-heavy month, average long delays hovered around 60 minutes during the holiday season.

The 10 U.S. Airports with the Fewest Delays

By comparison, a number of airports appear to have avoided this trap. Data below shows the top airports in the U.S. with the fewest flight delays during the same time period.

Rank CityAirportPercent of Flights Arriving LateAverage Delay Across Flights
#1HonoluluDaniel K Inouye International10.5%6.8 minutes
#2AnchorageTed Stevens Anchorage International11%7.1 minutes
#3LihueLihue Airport10.1%7.7 minutes
#4Long BeachLong Beach Airport12.6%8.4 minutes
#5SacramentoSacramento International14%8.6 minutes
#6KahuluiKahului Airport12.7%8.9 minutes
#7PortlandPortland International13.8%9 minutes
#8San JoseNorman Y. Mineta San Jose International14.9%9.2 minutes
#9Salt Lake CitySalt Lake City International13.3%9.7 minutes
#10Santa AnaJohn Wayne Airport-Orange County14.7%9.8 minutes

As the volume of air travel continues to climb, it is clear that some airports underperform others by a wide margin. To break the vicious cycle of delays, it will be vital for airports to get initial flights departing on time in the first place.

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