Scientists Say: Asteroid, meteor and meteorite

It’s an asteroid in space, a meteor in the atmosphere and a meteorite on the ground

a photo of the asteroid Eros

This is a close-up of the asteroid Eros — the first asteroid in our solar system to have a spacecraft land on it.


Asteroid (noun, “AS-tear-oyd”), Meteor (noun, “ME-tee-or”), Meteorite (noun, “ME-tee-or-ite”)

These are three words for the same object in different places. They all describe a rocky body from space. An asteroid is a small rocky object that orbits the sun. Asteroids are smaller than a planet. They don’t form spheres and aren’t big enough to keep other objects out of their way. But asteroids are large enough to hit each other. Some asteroids break off smaller chunks when they collide. Those small chunks are called meteoroids. Those also orbit the sun.

The orbits of some asteroids and meteoroids bring these objects close to Earth. If one gets close, it might get grabbed by Earth’s gravity and fall through the atmosphere. When it does, it becomes a meteor. Meteors are vaporizing asteroids or meteoroids. They are heating up so much that their rock turns to vapor as they fall. They are so hot they are incandescent — meaning they emit light. We see them as streaks of light in the sky.

Most of the time, meteors vaporize completely. But every once in a while, the remains hit the ground. Then, the object becomes a meteorite. Meteorites haven’t changed a lot since they were formed early in the history of the solar system. They are very similar to the rocks that may have formed our planet billions of years ago. Scientists study meteorites to understand how the Earth may have formed.

In a sentence

Scientists were so busy searching for the asteroid 2012 DA14, they missed the meteor that exploded over Russia in 2013 — leaving meteorites scattered behind.

Check out the full list of Scientists Say.

Bethany Brookshire was a longtime staff writer at Science News Explores and is the author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and likes to write about neuroscience, biology, climate and more. She thinks Porgs are an invasive species.

More Stories from Science News Explores on Space