Meteoroid, Meteors, and Meteorites


A meteoroid is a small rocky or metallic body travelling through space. Meteoroids are significantly smaller than asteroids, and range in size from small grains to 1 meter-wide objects. Most are fragments from comets or asteroids, while others are collision impact debris ejected from bodies such as the Moon or Mars.

The visible streak of light from space debris is the result of heat as it enters a planet's atmosphere, and the trail of glowing particles that it sheds in its wake is called a meteor, or colloquially a "shooting star" or "falling star". A series of many meteors appearing seconds or minutes apart, and appearing to originate from the same fixed point in the sky, is called a meteor shower. Incoming objects larger than several meters (asteroids or comets) can explode in the air. If a meteoroid, comet or asteroid or a piece thereof withstands ablation from its atmospheric entry and impacts with the ground, then it is called a meteorite.

Around 15,000 tonnes of meteoroids, micrometeoroids and different forms of space dust enter Earth's atmosphere each year.

In 1961, the International Astronomical Union defined a meteoroid as "a solid object moving in interplanetary space, of a size considerably smaller than an asteroid and considerably larger than an atom".

In 1995, Beech and Steel, writing in Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society, proposed a new definition where a meteoroid would be between 100 um and 10 meters across. Following the discovery of asteroids below 10 m in size, Rubin and Grossman refined the Beech and Steel definition of meteoroid to objects between 10 um and 1 m in diameter. The smallest asteroid ever discovered (based on absolute magnitude) is 2008 TS26 with an absolute magnitude of 33.2, and an estimated size of 1-meter. Objects smaller than meteoroids are classified as micrometeoroids and cosmic dust. The Minor Planet Center does not use the term "meteoroid".

The composition of meteoroids can be inferred as they pass through the Earth's atmosphere from their trajectories and the light spectra of the resulting meteor. Their effects on radio signals also give information, especially useful for daytime meteors which are otherwise very difficult to observe. From these trajectory measurements, meteoroids have been found to have many different orbits, some clustering in streams - meteor showers - often associated with a parent comet, others apparently sporadic. Debris from meteoroid streams may eventually be scattered into other orbits. The light spectra, combined with trajectory and light curve measurements, have yielded various compositions and densities, ranging from fragile snowball-like objects with density about a quarter that of ice, to nickel-iron rich dense rocks. The study of meteorites also gives insights into the composition of non-ephemeral meteoroids.

Meteoroids travel around the Sun in a variety of orbits and at various velocities. The fastest ones move at about 42 kilometers per second through space in the vicinity of Earth's orbit.[citation needed] The Earth travels at about 29.6 kilometers per second. Thus, when meteoroids meet Earth's atmosphere head-on (which only occurs when meteors are in a retrograde orbit such as the Eta Aquarids, which are associated with the retrograde Halley's Comet), the combined speed may reach about 71 kilometers per second. Meteoroids moving through Earth's orbital space average about 20 km/s.

On 2013 January 17 at 05:21 PST a 1 meter-sized comet from the Oort cloud entered Earth atmosphere. The object had a retrograde orbit with perihelion at 0.98 0.03 AU. It approached from the direction of the constellation Virgo, and collided head-on with Earth atmosphere at 72 6 km/s vaporizing more than 100 km above ground over a period of several seconds.

When meteoroids intersect with the Earth's atmosphere at night, they are likely to become visible as meteors. If meteoroids survive the entry through the atmosphere and reach the Earth's surface, they are called meteorites. Meteorites are transformed in structure and chemistry by the heat of entry and force of impact. A noted meteoroid, 2008 TC3, was observed in space on a collision course with Earth on 6 October 2008 and entered the Earth's atmosphere the next day, striking a remote area of northern Sudan. It was the first time that a meteoroid had been observed in space and tracked prior to impacting Earth.

Note: the International Astronomical Union (IAU) defines a "meteoroid" as moving through interplanetary space. The IAU, knowing that a "meteoroid falling through the Earth's atmosphere" is no longer orbiting the Sun, has defined a "meteor" as being the extraterrestrial object, as well as, the "visible streak of light" that it produced. The relegating of the term "meteor" to being only the "visible streak of light" is a common misuse of the terms "meteoroid" and "meteor" as originally defined by the IAU.


A meteorite is a solid piece of debris, from such sources as asteroids or comets, that originates in outer space and survives its impact with the Earth's surface. It is called a meteoroid before its impact. A meteorite's size can range from small to extremely large. When a meteoroid enters the atmosphere, friction, pressure, and chemical interactions with the atmospheric gases cause it to heat up and radiate that energy, thus forming a fireball, also known as a meteor or shooting/falling star. A bolide is either an extraterrestrial body that collides with the Earth, or an exceptionally bright, fireball-like meteor regardless of whether it ultimately impacts the surface.

More generally, a meteorite on the surface of any celestial body is a natural object that has come from outer space. Meteorites have been found on the Moon and Mars. Meteorites that are recovered after being observed as they transit the atmosphere or impact the Earth are called meteorite fall. All other meteorites are known as finds. As of February 2010, there are approximately 1,086 witnessed falls having specimens in the world's collections. There are more than 38,660 well-documented meteorite finds.

Meteorites have traditionally been divided into three broad categories: stony meteorites are rocks, mainly composed of silicate minerals; iron meteorites that are largely composed of metallic iron-nickel; and, stony-iron meteorites that contain large amounts of both metallic and rocky material. Modern classification schemes divide meteorites into groups according to their structure, chemical and isotopic composition and mineralogy. Meteorites smaller than 2mm are classified as micrometeorites.

Meteorites are always named for the places they were found, usually a nearby town or geographic feature. In cases where many meteorites were found in one place, the name may be followed by a number or letter (e.g., Allan Hills 84001 or Dimmitt (b)). Some meteorites have informal nicknames: the Sylacauga meteorite is sometimes called the "Hodges meteorite" after Ann Hodges, the woman who was struck by it; the Canyon Diablo meteorite, which formed Meteor Crater has dozens of these aliases. However, the single, official name designated by the Meteoritical Society is used by scientists, catalogers, and most collectors.

Meteorites in History

One theory suggests that a large meteorite impact caused the mass extinction of the dinosaurs. It is also theorized that meteorites caused other mass extinction events throughout the history of the Earth.

The only reported fatality from meteorite impacts is an Egyptian dog who was killed in 1911, although this report is disputed. The meteorites that struck this area were identified in the 1980s as Martian in origin.

The first known modern case of a human hit by a space rock occurred on November 30, 1954 in Sylacauga, Alabama.

There a 4 kg stone chondrite meteorite crashed through a roof and hit Ann Hodges in her living room after it bounced off her radio. She was badly bruised. Several persons have since claimed to have been struck by 'meteorites' but no verifiable meteorites have resulted.

Indigenous peoples often prized iron-nickel meteorites as an easy, if limited, source of iron metal. For example, the Inuit used chips of the Cape York meteorite to form cutting edges for tools.


Until the twentieth century, only a few hundred meteorite finds had ever been discovered. More than 80% of these were iron and stony-iron meteorites, which are easily distinguished from local rocks. To this day, few stony meteorites are reported each year that can be considered to be "accidental" finds. The reason there are now more than 30,000 meteorite finds in the world's collections started with the discovery by Harvey H. Nininger that meteorites are much more common on the surface of the Earth than was previously thought.

Meteorites Classification

Most meteoroids disintegrate when entering the Earth's atmosphere, however an estimated 500 meteorites ranging in size from peas to basketballs or larger do reach the surface each year; only 5 or 6 of these are typically recovered and made known to scientists.

Few meteorites are large enough to create impact craters. Instead, they typically arrive at the surface at their terminal velocity (free-fall) and, at most, create a small pit. Even so, falling meteorites have caused damage to property, livestock, and even people in historic times.

Very large meteoroids may strike the ground with a significant fraction of their cosmic velocity, leaving behind a hypervelocity impact crater. The kind of crater will depend on the size, composition, degree of fragmentation, and incoming angle of the impactor. The force of such collisions has the potential to cause widespread destruction.

The most frequent hypervelocity cratering events on the Earth are caused by iron meteoroids, which are most easily able to transit the atmosphere intact. Examples of craters caused by iron meteoroids include Barringer (Meteor Crater), Odessa Meteor Crater, Wabar craters, and Wolfe Creek crater; iron meteorites are found in association with all of these craters.

In contrast, even relatively large stony or icy bodies like small comets or asteroids, up to millions of tons, are disrupted in the atmosphere, and do not make impact craters. Although such disruption events are uncommon, they can cause a considerable concussion to occur; the famed Tunguska Event likely resulted from such an incident.

Many events in Kazantsev's tale were subsequently confused with the actual occurrences at Tunguska. The nuclear-powered UFO hypothesis was adopted by TV drama critics Thomas Atkins and John Baxter in their book The Fire Came By (1976). The 1998 television series The Secret KGB UFO Files (Phenomenon: The Lost Archives), broadcast on Turner Network Television, referred to the Tunguska event as "the Russian Roswell" and claimed that crashed UFO debris had been recovered from the site. In 2004, a group from the Tunguska Space Phenomenon Public State Fund claimed to have found the wreck of an alien spacecraft at the site.

The proponents of the UFO hypothesis have never been able to provide any significant evidence for their claims. It should be noted that the Tunguska site is downrange from the Baikonur Cosmodrome and has been contaminated repeatedly by Russian space debris, most notably by the failed launch of the fifth Vostok test flight on December 22, 1960. The payload landed close to the Tunguska impact site, and a team of engineers was dispatched there to recover the capsule and its two canine passengers (which survived).

Very large stony objects, hundreds of meters in diameter or more, weighing tens-of-millions of tons or more, can reach the surface and cause large craters, but are very rare. However, such events are generally so energetic that the impactor is completely destroyed, leaving no meteorites. (The very first example of a stony meteorite found in association with a large impact crater, the Morokweng Crater in South Africa, was reported in May, 2006.)

About 86% of the meteorites that fall on Earth are chondrites, which are named for the small, round particles they contain. These particles, or chondrules, are composed mostly of silicate minerals that appear to have been melted while they were free-floating objects in space.

Chondrites also contain small amounts of organic matter, including amino acids, and presolar grains. Chondrites are typically about 4.55 billion years old and are thought to represent material from the asteroid belt that never formed into large bodies. Like comets, chondritic asteroids are some of the oldest and most primitive materials in the solar system. Chondrites are often considered to be "the building blocks of the planets."

About 8% of the meteorites that fall on Earth are achondrites, some of which appear to be similar to terrestrial mafic igneous rocks. Most achondrites are also ancient rocks, and are thought to represent crustal material of asteroids. One large family of achondrites may have originated on the asteroid 4 Vesta. Others derive from different asteroids.

Two small groups of achondrites are special, as they are younger and do not appear to come from the asteroid belt. One of these groups comes from the Moon, and includes rocks similar to those brought back to Earth by Apollo and Luna programs. The other group is almost certainly from Mars and are the only materials from other planets ever recovered by man.

About 5% of meteorites that fall are iron meteorites with intergrowths of iron-nickel alloys, such as kamacite and taenite. Most iron meteorites are thought to come from the core of a number of asteroids that were once molten. As on Earth, the denser metal separated from silicate material and sank toward the center of the asteroid, forming a core. After the asteroid solidified, it broke up in a collision with another asteroid.

Stony-iron meteorites constitute the remaining 1%. They are a mixture of iron-nickel metal and silicate minerals. One group, called pallasites, are thought to have originated in the boundary zone above the core regions where iron meteorites originated. The other major group of stony-iron meteorites are called mesosiderites.

Tektites (from Greek tektos, molten), natural glass objects up to a few centimeters in size, were formed--according to most scientists--by the impact of large meteorites on Earth's surface, although a few researchers have favored an origin from the Moon as volcanic ejecta. Tektites are NOT meteorites.

Types of Mereorites

Meteorite Types
Ironprimarily iron and nickel;
similar to type M asteroids
Stony Ironmixtures of iron and stony material like type S asteroids
Chondriteby far the largest number of meteorites fall into this class;
similar in composition to the mantles and crusts of the terrestrial planets
Carbonaceous Chondritevery similar in composition to the Sun less volatiles;
similar to type C asteroids
Achondritesimilar to terrestrial basalts;
the meteorites believed to have originated on the Moon and Mars are achondrites

"Fall" means the meteorite was witnessed by someone as it fell from the sky. A "find" means the meteorite was not witnessed and the meteorite was found after the fact. About 33% of the meteorites are witnessed falls.


A meteor or "shooting star" is the visible streak of light from a meteoroid or micrometeoroid, heated and glowing from entering the Earth's atmosphere, as it sheds glowing material in its wake. Meteors typically occur in the mesosphere at altitudes between 76 km to 100 km (4662 miles). The root word meteor comes from the Greek meteors - meaning "suspended in the air".

Millions of meteors occur in the Earth's atmosphere daily. Most meteoroids that cause meteors are about the size of a pebble. Meteors may occur in showers, which arise when the Earth passes through a stream of debris left by a comet, or as "random" or "sporadic" meteors, not associated with a specific stream of space debris. A number of specific meteors have been observed, largely by members of the public and largely by accident, but with enough detail that orbits of the meteoroids producing the meteors have been calculated. All of the orbits passed through the asteroid belt. The atmospheric velocities of meteors result from the movement of Earth around the Sun at about 30 km/s (18 miles/second), the orbital speeds of meteoroids, and the gravity well of Earth.

Meteors become visible between about 75 to 120 km (3470 miles) above the Earth. They usually disintegrate at altitudes of 50 to 95 km (3151 miles). Meteors have roughly a fifty percent chance of a daylight (or near daylight) collision with the Earth. Most meteors are, however, observed at night, when darkness allows fainter objects to be recognized.

For bodies with a size scale larger than (10 cm to several meters) meteor visibility is due to the atmospheric ram pressure (not friction) that heats the meteoroid so that it glows and creates a shining trail of gases and melted meteoroid particles. The gases include vaporized meteoroid material and atmospheric gases that heat up when the meteoroid passes through the atmosphere.

Most meteors glow for about a second. A relatively small percentage of meteoroids hit the Earth's atmosphere and then pass out again: these are termed Earth-grazing fireballs (for example The Great Daylight 1972 Fireball). The visible light produced by a meteor may take on various hues, depending on the chemical composition of the meteoroid, and the speed of its movement through the atmosphere. As layers of the meteoroid abrade and ionize, the color of the light emitted may change according to the layering of minerals.

Possible colors (and elements producing them) include:

Sound of a Meteor

Sound generated by a meteor in the upper atmosphere, such as a sonic boom, typically arrives many seconds after the visual light from a meteor disappears. Occasionally, as with the Leonid meteor shower of 2001,"crackling", "swishing", or "hissing" sounds have been reported, occurring at the same instant as a meteor flare. Similar sounds have also been reported during intense displays of Earth's auroras.

Sound recordings made under controlled conditions in Mongolia in 1998 support the contention that the sounds are real.

Theories on the generation of these sounds may partially explain them. For example, scientists at NASA suggested that the turbulent ionized wake of a meteor interacts with the magnetic field of the Earth, generating pulses of radio waves. As the trail dissipates, megawatts of electromagnetic energy could be released, with a peak in the power spectrum at audio frequencies. Physical vibrations induced by the electromagnetic impulses would then be heard if they are powerful enough to make grasses, plants, eyeglass frames, and other conductive materials vibrate. This proposed mechanism, although proven to be plausible by laboratory work, remains unsupported by corresponding measurements in the field.

The Path of a Meteor

Entry of meteoroids into the Earth's atmosphere produces three main effects: ionization of atmospheric molecules, dust that the meteoroid sheds, and the sound of passage.

During the entry of a meteoroid or asteroid into the upper atmosphere, an ionization trail is created, where the molecules in the upper atmosphere are ionized by the passage of the meteor. Such ionization trails can last up to 45 minutes at a time. Small, sand-grain sized meteoroids are entering the atmosphere constantly, essentially every few seconds in any given region of the atmosphere, and thus ionization trails can be found in the upper atmosphere more or less continuously.

When radio waves are bounced off these trails, it is called meteor burst communications. Meteor radars can measure atmospheric density and winds by measuring the decay rate and Doppler shift of a meteor trail. Most meteoroids burn up when they enter the atmosphere. The left-over debris is called meteoric dust or just meteor dust.

Meteor dust particles can persist in the atmosphere for up to several months. These particles might affect climate, both by scattering electromagnetic radiation and by catalyzing chemical reactions in the upper atmosphere. Larger meteors can enter dark flight after deceleration where the meteorite (or fragments) fall at terminal velocity. Dark flight starts when the meteorite(s) decelerate to about 2-4 km/s (4,500-8,900 mph). Larger fragments will fall further down the strewn field.

Whether an object breaks apart depends on its composition, speed, and angle of entry. A faster meteor at an oblique angle suffers greater stress. Meteors made of iron withstand the stress better than those of stone. Even an iron meteor will usually break up as the atmosphere becomes more dense, around 5 to 7 miles up. A meteor sometimes explodes above the surface, causing widespread damage from the blast and ensuing fire. This happened in 1908 over over Siberia.

Extraterrestrial objects that hit the ground, their speed roughly half what it was upon entry, blast out craters 12 to 20 times their size. Craters on Earth form much as they would on the moon or any rocky planet. Smaller objects create simple, bowl-shaped craters. Larger impacts cause a rebound that creates a central peak; slipping along the rim forms terraces. The largest impacts form basins in which multiple rebounds form several inner peaks.