Meteor: Definition & Facts

Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

In this lesson you will learn what a meteor is, its composition, its origin, and how it is different from a meteoroid and a meteorite. A short quiz will follow.

Wishing Upon a Shooting Star

They say that dreams come true when you wish upon a star, and apparently it's doubly true for a shooting star. But what exactly is a shooting star? In science, we call them meteors.

A meteor is a small rock (less than 1 meter across) that is falling through the Earth's atmosphere. It creates a line or streak across the sky for a moment as it burns up due to its high speed and friction with the atmosphere. Friction creates heat, and enough heat can create a fiery ball of rock that can be seen from the Earth. They're usually visible while in the Earth's mesosphere at between 76 and 120 kilometers above the ground.

Large Meteor (Artist Impression)
Large Meteor (Artist Impression)

A meteor shower is what happens when a larger body is broken down into lots of smaller meteors that fall to Earth - it leads to lots of shooting stars over a period of an hour or a few hours.

Depiction of an 1833 Meteor Storm in North America
Depiction of an 1833 Meteor Storm in North America

Meteor, Meteorite, Meteoroid

The word 'meteor' comes from the Greek word meteoros which means 'high in the air'. It therefore makes perfect sense for a rock falling to Earth, because when it makes its shooting-star streak, it certainly is high in the air. But what about before it reaches the Earth? Or after it's hit the ground?

A meteorite is what we call a meteor after it has landed on the Earth. A meteoroid, on the other hand, is what we call it before it approaches the Earth - meteoroid is a similar word to asteroid, because they are extremely similar. A meteoroid is just a small asteroid - as tiny as small grains and as large as 1 meter across. Any bigger and it's an asteroid.

A Meteorite
A Meteorite

Composition & Origin

Though meteors can sometimes contain frozen water and other material from broken-up comets, they tend to be more rocky and metallic. There are three main types of meteors in terms of composition: stones, irons, and stony-irons. Stony meteors contain similar materials to Earth rocks - mostly silicate minerals. Iron meteors contain alloys of nickel and iron, such as kamacite and taenite. Stony-irons contain approximately equal amounts of each.

Kuiper Belt & Oort Cloud
Kuiper Belt & Oort Cloud

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