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Meteors

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Meteors

Is this a comet?

When a meteor shoots through the atmosphere, it burns and glows. When we look up and see one, we call it a shooting star. In this image, the meteor looks like a comet. No need to go anywhere to see this. Just try to catch one of these meteor showers: the Perseids in mid-August or the Geminids in mid-December. Look for information on the dates and whether the Moon will not be lighting up the sky.

Meteors

If you look at the sky on a dark night, you may see a meteor ( Figure below ). A meteor forms a streak of light across the sky. People call them shooting stars because that's what they look like. But meteors are not stars at all. The light you see comes from a small piece of matter burning up as it flies through Earth's atmosphere.

Meteors burning up as they fall through Earth's atmosphere

Meteors burning up as they fall through Earth's atmosphere.

Meteoroids

Before these small pieces of matter enter Earth’s atmosphere, they are called meteoroids . Meteoroids are as large as boulders or as small as tiny sand grains. Larger objects are called asteroids; smaller objects are interplanetary dust. Meteoroids sometimes cluster together in long trails. They are the debris left behind by comets. When Earth passes through a comet trail, there is a meteor shower . During a meteor shower, there are many more meteors than normal for a night or two.

Meteorites

A meteoroid is dragged toward Earth by gravity and enters the atmosphere. Friction with the atmosphere heats the object quickly, so it starts to vaporize. As it flies through the atmosphere, it leaves a trail of glowing gases. The object is now a meteor. Most meteors vaporize in the atmosphere. They never reach Earth’s surface. Large meteoroids may not burn up entirely in the atmosphere. A small core may remain and hit Earth’s surface. This is called a meteorite .

Meteorites provide clues about our solar system. Many were formed in the early solar system ( Figure below ). Some are from asteroids that have split apart. A few are rocks from nearby bodies like Mars. For this to happen, an asteroid smashed into Mars and sent up debris. A bit of the debris entered Earth’s atmosphere as a meteor.

The Mars Rover, Opportunity, found a metal meteorite on the Red Planet

The Mars Rover, Opportunity, found a metal meteorite on the Red Planet.

Vocabulary

  • meteor : Material from outer space that burns up as it enters Earth's atmosphere.
  • meteor shower : Time of frequent meteors.
  • meteorite : Meteors that strike Earth.
  • meteoroid : Small rock in interplanetary space that has not yet entered Earth's atmosphere.

Summary

  • A meteor that strikes Earth's surface is a meteorite.
  • Many meteorites are remnants of the earliest material that formed in the solar system.
  • Shooting stars are meteors that burn up in Earth's atmosphere.

Explore More

Use the resources below to answer the questions that follow.

  1. What are meteoroids?
  2. What are meteors?
  3. What happens to most meteors in the atmosphere?
  4. What is a fireball?
  5. What are meteorites?
  6. Explain the difference between sporadic meteors and meteor showers.
  7. What causes meteor showers?
  8. When does the Perseid meteor shower occur and why?

Review

  1. Compare and contrast meteoroid, meteor, and meteorite.
  2. What are meteorites important to scientists?
  3. Why are meteors known as shooting stars?

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