Meteoroids: Origin & Orbits

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  • 0:02 The Peculiarities of…
  • 0:41 Meteor Showers and the Radiant
  • 2:45 What's a Comet Got to…
  • 4:23 The Parent Bodies of…
  • 5:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

This lesson will describe the origins of meteoroids, what comets have to do with their orbits, and the parent bodies of the meteorites we find on Earth.

The Peculiarities of Meteorites

Look at the image on your screen:

Stereotypical meteorite shown in movies

What you see is the stereotypical meteorite shown in movies and TV programs. It's big, it's scary, and sort of ugly, although oddly entrancing. But the truth of the matter is less scary than Hollywood. A typical meteoroid, which is a small piece of rock or dust floating in space that may one day enter Earth's atmosphere, has a mass that's about that of a paper clip. That's puny!

I hope you thought that was a pretty interesting little fact. I've actually got an even more interesting little fact for you about meteoroids in this lesson, one about the origin and orbit of meteoroids.

Meteor Showers and the Radiant

If you didn't know already, then you should know that a meteoroid (space dust or rock) produces a meteor when burning up through Earth's atmosphere. If it survives its fall through Earth's atmosphere and hits the ground, it is known as a meteorite.

Let's get on with this lesson then.

If you were to strike a match, it would glow as it burns. If you moved that match through the air, it would produce a trail of smoke behind it. That trail of smoke could give you a clue from which direction you moved the match. When a meteor enters the earth's atmosphere, it also produces a trail, one that can provide clues as to where it came from.

The direction and speed of a meteor can be used to figure out its orbit before entering Earth. One way to do this is to watch for meteor showers. A meteor shower refers to many meteors appearing to come from the same point in the sky over a few hours or days.

The point in the sky from which meteors all seem to come from during a meteor shower is called the radiant, and a meteor is the brief but very bright trail observed in the sky as a small piece of space dust or rock (a meteoroid) enters Earth's upper atmosphere.

The constellation from which a meteor shower seems to radiate gives the meteor shower its name, but the key point here is that the radiant is nothing more than illusion. The meteoroids don't come from that constellation. You'll find out where they come from in a little bit.

One of the most famous meteor showers is the Perseid shower that appears in August. That meteor shower radiates from the constellation Perseus. The reason that the meteors all seem to come from one point in the sky is because they must have been traveling through space in parallel paths.

It's like you standing in the middle of the highway, watching cars traveling in parallel paths on a highway. It will appear that the cars are all coming from the same point on the horizon.

What's a Comet Got to Do With It?

So, I promised in my intro I'd tell you a pretty nifty thing. Meteor showers form thanks to none other than - comets! Yep, it's comets that are responsible for meteor showers. Weird, huh? Tina Turner would surely ask: What's a comet got to do with it?

Well, Tina (or anyone else listening), a comet is basically just a ball of ice and dirt. As a comet orbits the sun, it will shed away dust and other debris from its icy nucleus. This forms a cloud of dust in essentially the same orbit as their parent comet for a long time thereafter.

This cloud, or comet debris, is one of the origins of meteoric material! As Earth passes through this cloud of dust and debris and that comet's orbit around our sun, you get yourself a nice meteor shower!

For example, every October, Earth will pass near the orbit of the famous comet Halley, and we get ourselves a nice Orionid shower.

But you don't always have to wait for a meteor shower to see a meteor. Sporadic meteors, meteors not part of a meteor shower, can be seen on occasion as well.

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