The Formation of Shooting Stars

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  • 0:02 Common Misnomers
  • 0:25 Meteors, Meteoroids,…
  • 1:26 How Shooting Stars are Formed
  • 2:37 Types of Meteorites &…
  • 4:57 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

This lesson will explain to you the differences between a meteor, meteoroid, and meteorite as well as how falling stars form and what the different kinds of meteorites are.

Common Misnomers

Misnomers - you gotta love 'em. Koala bears, Panama hats, lead pencils - you know, the stuff that's named one way but is actually something else.

Our lesson's topic is about shooting stars. As you'll learn in just a little bit, they are not stars at all! They're something else altogether. What they are and why they look the way they do will be covered in this lesson.

Meteors, Meteoroids, Meteorites

A shooting or falling star is actually a meteor. The term meteor refers to the brief but very bright trail observed in the sky as a piece of space dust or rock enters Earth's upper atmosphere.

This shouldn't be confused with a meteoroid, which is a small piece of rock or dust floating in space that may one day enter Earth's atmosphere.

If a meteoroid enters Earth's atmosphere to produce a meteor, survives this journey through the Earth's atmosphere, and lands on the ground, it will be known as a meteorite. Again a meteorite is a piece of a meteoroid that survived its fall through Earth's atmosphere.

It can be easy to get mixed up between the three terms so I've come up with a little rhyme to help you remember the differences:

A meteoroid might be deployed
into the Earth's interior as a shiny meteor.
If it lands all right,
it's then called a meteorite.

How Shooting Stars Are Formed

That shiny meteor is so bright and may not survive its fall to Earth to become a meteorite for a reason. To explain why, do something for me. Take your two hands and rub them really hard together. Keep doing it. Keep going. What do you feel? Your hands should've gotten really hot. They got hot thanks to the force of friction. Friction causes stuff to heat up.

When a meteoroid enters Earth's atmosphere, it burns up because of friction. Basically, the rock hits the atmosphere and rubs up against the air like your two hands rubbed up against one another. This causes friction, and this friction heats up the meteoroid like it did your hands.

The heat that's generated by this friction will ionize atoms in a pathway behind where the space debris just passed through. This ionization is what causes the brief streak of light you see forming in the sky, the meteor. The heat generated by this event vaporizes most of the meteoroids entering Earth, and thus, you're really lucky if you find a meteorite on the ground.

Types of Meteorites & Cool Facts

If you ever find a meteorite, it will be classified into one of three major categories based on composition. They may be:

  • Iron meteorites, meteorites made of iron and nickel
  • Stony-iron meteorites, meteorites made of stone and iron, which include the pallasites and mesosiderites
  • Stony meteorites, meteorites made entirely of stony material, which includes the chondrites and achondrites

Most meteorites seen falling from the sky are stony, but most found on the ground are the iron kind. That's because stony meteorites are more likely to disintegrate due to the effects of weather right here on Earth and because the iron ones are much easier for us to spot. I mean if you're hiking and trip over a stony meteorite, you might think it's just another rock, but if you trip over an iron one, you're more likely to think it's something odd given the surroundings. It's just human nature.

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