20% of the surface of Earth’s Eastern Hemisphere is littered with a certain kind of rock. Black, glossy blobs called tektites are spread throughout Australasia. Scientists know they’re from a meteorite strike, but they’ve never been able to locate the crater where it struck Earth.
Rolling up the slopes of Mt. Sharp recently, NASA’s Curiosity rover appears to have stumbled across yet another meteorite, its third since touching down nearly four and a half years ago. While not yet confirmed, the turkey-shaped object has a gray, metallic luster and a lightly-dimpled texture that hints of regmaglypts. Regmaglypts, indentations that resemble thumbprints in Play-Doh, are commonly seen in meteorites and caused by softer materials stripped from the rock’s surface during the brief but intense heat and pressure of its plunge through the atmosphere.
Oddly, only one photo of the assumed meteorite shows up on the Mars raw image site. Curiosity snapped the image on Jan. 12 at 11:21 UT with its color mast camera. If you look closely at the photo a short distance above and to the right of the bright reflection a third of the way up from the bottom of the rock, you’ll spy three shiny spots in a row. Hmmm. Looks like it got zapped by Curiosity’s ChemCam laser. The rover fires a laser which vaporizes part of the meteorite’s surface while a spectrometer analyzes the resulting cloud of plasma to determine its composition. The mirror-like shimmer of the spots is further evidence that the gray lump is an iron-nickel meteorite.
Curiosity has driven more than 9.3 miles (15 km) since landing inside Mars’ Gale Crater in August 2012. It spent last summer and part of fall in a New Mexican-like landscape of scenic mesas and buttes called “Murray Buttes.” It’s since departed and continues to climb to sequentially higher and younger layers of the lower part of Mt. Sharp to investigate additional rocks. Scientists hope to create a timeline of how the region’s climate changed from an ancient freshwater lake environment with conditions favorable for microbial life (if such ever evolved) to today’s windswept, frigid desert.
Assuming the examination of the rock proves a metallic composition, this new rock would be the eighth discovered by our roving machines. All of them have been irons despite the fact that at least on Earth, iron meteorites are rather rare. About 95% of all found or seen-to-fall meteorites are the stony variety (mostly chondrites), 4.4% are irons and 1% stony-irons.
NASA’s Opportunity rover found five metal meteorites, and Curiosity’s rumbled by its first find, a honking hunk of metallic gorgeousness named Lebanon, in May 2014. If this were Earth, the new meteorite’s smooth, shiny texture would indicate a relatively recent fall, but who’s to say how long it’s been sitting on Mars. The planet’s not without erosion from wind and temperature changes, but it lacks the oxygen and water that would really eat into an iron-nickel specimen like this one. Still, the new find looks polished to my eye, possibly smoothed by wind-whipped sand grains during the countless Martian dust storms that have raged over the eons.
Why no large stony meteorites have yet to be been found on Mars is puzzling. They should be far more common; like irons, stonies would also display beautiful thumprinting and dark fusion crust to boot. Maybe they simply blend in too well with all the other rocks littering the Martian landscape. Or perhaps they erode more quickly on Mars than the metal variety.
Every time a meteorite turns up on Mars in images taken by the rovers, I get a kick out of how our planet and the Red One not only share water, ice and wind but also getting whacked by space rocks.
Children ice skating in Khakassia, Russia react to the fall of a bright fireball two nights ago on Dec.6
In 1908 it was Tunguska event, a meteorite exploded in mid-air, flattening 770 square miles of forest. 39 years later in 1947, 70 tons of iron meteorites pummeled the Sikhote-Alin Mountains, leaving more than 30 craters. Then a day before Valentine’s Day in 2013, hundreds of dashcams recorded the fiery and explosive entry of the Chelyabinsk meteoroid, which created a shock wave strong enough to blow out thousands of glass windows and litter the snowy fields and lakes with countless fusion-crusted space rocks.
Documentary footage from 1947 of the Sikhote-Alin fall and how a team of scientists trekked into the wilderness to find the craters and meteorite fragments
Now on Dec. 6, another fireball blazed across Siberian skies, briefly illuminated the land like a sunny day before breaking apart with a boom over the town of Sayanogorsk. Given its brilliance and the explosions heard, there’s a fair chance that meteorites may have landed on the ground. Hopefully, a team will attempt a search soon. As long as it doesn’t snow too soon after a fall, black stones and the holes they make in snow are relatively easy to spot.
OK, maybe Siberia doesn’t get ALL the cool fireballs and meteorites, but it’s done well in the past century or so. Given the dimensions of the region — it covers 10% of the Earth’s surface and 57% of Russia — I suppose it’s inevitable that over so vast an area, regular fireball sightings and occasional monster meteorite falls would be the norm. For comparison, the United States covers only 1.9% of the Earth. So there’s at least a partial answer. Siberia’s just big.
Every day about 100 tons of meteoroids, which are fragments of dust and gravel from comets and asteroids, enter the Earth’s atmosphere. Much of it gets singed into fine dust, but the tougher stuff — mostly rocky, asteroid material — occasionally makes it to the ground as meteorites. Every day then our planet gains about a blue whale’s weight in cosmic debris. We’re practically swimming in the stuff!
Most of this mass is in the form of dust but a study done in 1996 and published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society further broke down that number. In the 10 gram (weight of a paperclip or stick of gum) to 1 kilogram (2.2 lbs) size range, 6,400 to 16,000 lbs. (2900-7300 kilograms) of meteorites strike the Earth each year. Yet because the Earth is so vast and largely uninhabited, appearances to the contrary, only about 10 are witnessed falls later recovered by enterprising hunters.
A couple more videos of the Dec. 6, 2016 fireball over Khakassia and Sayanogorsk, Russia
Meteorites fall in a pattern from smallest first to biggest last to form what astronomers call a strewnfield, an elongated stretch of ground several miles long shaped something like an almond. If you can identify the meteor’s ground track, the land over which it streaked, that’s where to start your search for potential meteorites.
Meteorites indeed fall everywhere and have for as long as Earth’s been rolling around the sun. So why couldn’t just one fall in my neighborhood or on the way to work? Maybe if I moved to Siberia …
Perhaps the most important question we can possible ask is, “are we alone in the Universe?”.
And so far, the answer has been, “I don’t know”. I mean, it’s a huge Universe, with hundreds of billions of stars in the Milky Way, and now we learn there are trillions of galaxies in the Universe.
Is there life closer to home? What about in the Solar System? There are a few existing places we could look for life close to home. Really any place in the Solar System where there’s liquid water. Wherever we find water on Earth, we find life, so it make sense to search for places with liquid water in the Solar System.
I know, I know, life could take all kinds of wonderful forms. Enlightened beings of pure energy, living among us right now. Or maybe space whales on Titan that swim through lakes of ammonia. Beep boop silicon robot lifeforms that calculate the wasted potential of our lives.
Sure, we could search for those things, and we will. Later. We haven’t even got this basic problem done yet. Earth water life? Check! Other water life? No idea.
It turns out, water’s everywhere in the Solar System. In comets and asteroids, on the icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn, especially Europa or Enceladus. Or you could look for life on Mars.
Mars is similar to Earth in many ways, however, it’s smaller, has less gravity, a thinner atmosphere. And unfortunately, it’s bone dry. There are vast polar caps of water ice, but they’re frozen solid. There appears to be briny liquid water underneath the surface, and it occasionally spurts out onto the surface. Because it’s close and relatively easy to explore, it’s been the place scientists have gone looking for past or current life.
Researchers tried to answer the question with NASA’s twin Viking Landers, which touched down in 1976. The landers were both equipped with three biology experiments. The researchers weren’t kidding around, they were going to nail this question: is there life on Mars?
In the first experiment, they took soil samples from Mars, mixed in a liquid solution with organic and inorganic compounds, and then measured what chemicals were released. In a second experiment, they put Earth organic compounds into Martian soil, and saw carbon dioxide released. In the third experiment, they heated Martian soil and saw organic material come out of the soil.
Three experiments, and stuff happened in all three. Stuff! Pretty exciting, right? Unfortunately, there were equally plausible non-biological explanations for each of the results. The astrobiology community wasn’t convinced, and they still fight in brutal cage matches to this day. It was ambitious, but inconclusive. The worst kind of conclusive.
Researchers found more inconclusive evidence in 1994. Ugh, there’s that word again. They were studying a meteorite that fell in Antarctica, but came from Mars, based on gas samples taken from inside the rock.
They thought they found evidence of fossilized bacterial life inside the meteorite. But again, there were too many explanations for how the life could have gotten in there from here on Earth. Life found a way… to burrow into a rock from Mars.
NASA learned a powerful lesson from this experience. If they were going to prove life on Mars, they had to go about it carefully and conclusively, building up evidence that had no controversy.
The Spirit and Opportunity Rovers were an example of building up this case cautiously. They were sent to Mars in 2004 to find evidence of water. Not water today, but water in the ancient past. Old water Over the course of several years of exploration, both rovers turned up multiple lines of evidence there was water on the surface of Mars in the ancient past.
They found concretions, tiny pebbles containing iron-rich hematite that forms on Earth in water. They found the mineral gypsum; again, something that’s deposited by water on Earth.
NASA’s Curiosity Rover took this analysis to the next level, arriving in 2012 and searching for evidence that water was on Mars for vast periods of time; long enough for Martian life to evolve.
Once again, Curiosity found multiple lines of evidence that water acted on the surface of Mars. It found an ancient streambed near its landing site, and drilled into rock that showed the region was habitable for long periods of time.
In 2014, NASA turned the focus of its rovers from looking for evidence of water to searching for past evidence of life.
Curiosity found one of the most interesting targets: a strange strange rock formations while it was passing through an ancient riverbed on Mars. While it was examining the Gillespie Lake outcrop in Yellowknife Bay, it photographed sedimentary rock that looks very similar to deposits we see here on Earth. They’re caused by the fossilized mats of bacteria colonies that lived billions of years ago.
Not life today, but life when Mars was warmer and wetter. Still, fossilized life on Mars is better than no life at all. But there might still be life on Mars, right now, today. The best evidence is not on its surface, but in its atmosphere. Several spacecraft have detected trace amounts of methane in the Martian atmosphere.
Methane is a chemical that breaks down quickly in sunlight. If you farted on Mars, the methane from your farts would dissipate in a few hundred years. If spacecraft have detected this methane in the atmosphere, that means there’s some source replenishing those sneaky squeakers. It could be volcanic activity, but it might also be life. There could be microbes hanging on, in the last few places with liquid water, producing methane as a byproduct.
The European ExoMars orbiter just arrived at Mars, and its main job is sniff the Martian atmosphere and get to the bottom of this question.
Are there trace elements mixed in with the methane that means its volcanic in origin? Or did life create it? And if there’s life, where is it located? ExoMars should help us target a location for future study.
NASA is following up Curiosity with a twin rover designed to search for life. The Mars 2020 Rover will be a mobile astrobiology laboratory, capable of scooping up material from the surface of Mars and digesting it, scientifically speaking. It’ll search for the chemicals and structures produced by past life on Mars. It’ll also collect samples for a future sample return mission.
Even if we do discover if there’s life on Mars, it’s entirely possible that we and Martian life are actually related by a common ancestor, that split off billions of years ago. In fact, some astrobiologists think that Mars is a better place for life to have gotten started.
Not the dry husk of a Red Planet that we know today, but a much wetter, warmer version that we now know existed billions of years ago. When the surface of Mars was warm enough for liquid water to form oceans, lakes and rivers. And we now know it was like this for millions of years.
While Earth was still reeling from an early impact by the massive planet that crashed into it, forming the Moon, life on Mars could have gotten started early.
But how could we actually be related? The idea of Panspermia says that life could travel naturally from world to world in the Solar System, purely through the asteroid strikes that were regularly pounding everything in the early days.
Imagine an asteroid smashing into a world like Mars. In the lower gravity of Mars, debris from the impact could be launched into an escape trajectory, free to travel through the Solar System.
We know that bacteria can survive almost indefinitely, freeze dried, and protected from radiation within chunks of space rock. So it’s possible they could make the journey from Mars to Earth, crossing the orbit of our planet.
Even more amazingly, the meteorites that enter the Earth’s atmosphere would protect some of the bacterial inhabitants inside. As the Earth’s atmosphere is thick enough to slow down the descent of the space rocks, the tiny bacterialnauts could survive the entire journey from Mars, through space, to Earth.
If we do find life on Mars, how will we know it’s actually related to us? If Martian life has the similar DNA structure to Earth life, it’s probably related. In fact, we could probably trace the life back to determine the common ancestor, and even figure out when the tiny lifeforms make the journey.
If we do find life on Mars, which is related to us, that just means that life got around the Solar System. It doesn’t help us answer the bigger question about whether there’s life in the larger Universe. In fact, until we actually get a probe out to nearby stars, or receive signals from them, we might never know.
An even more amazing possibility is that it’s not related. That life on Mars arose completely independently. One clue that scientists will be looking for is the way the Martian life’s instructions are encoded. Here on Earth, all life follows “left-handed chirality” for the amino acid building blocks that make up DNA and RNA. But if right-handed amino acids are being used by Martian life, that would mean a completely independent origin of life.
Of course, if the life doesn’t use amino acids or DNA at all, then all bets are off. It’ll be truly alien, using a chemistry that we don’t understand at all.
There are many who believe that Mars isn’t the best place in the Solar System to search for life, that there are other places, like Europa or Enceladus, where there’s a vast amount of liquid water to be explored.
But Mars is close, it’s got a surface you can land on. We know there’s liquid water beneath the surface, and there was water there for a long time in the past. We’ve got the rovers, orbiters and landers on the planet and in the works to get to the bottom of this question. It’s an exciting time to be part of this search.
On April 6, 2015, Frank Hommel was leading a group of guests at his Bar H Working Dude Ranch on a horseback ride. The horses got thirsty, so Hommel and crew rode cross-country in search of a watering hole. Along the way, his horse Samson suddenly stopped and refused to go any further. Ahead of them was a rock sticking out of the sandy soil. Hommel had never seen his horse act this way before, so he dismounted to get a closer look at the red, dimpled mass. Something inside told him this strange, out of place boulder had to be a meteorite.
Here’s the crazy thing — Hommel’s hunch was correct. Lots of people pick up an odd rock now and then they think might be a meteorite, but in nearly every case it isn’t. Meteorites are exceedingly rare, so you’re chances of happening across one are remote. But this time horse and man got it right.
The rock that stopped Samson that April day was the real deal and would soon be classified and named the Clarendon (c) stony meteorite. Only the top third of the mass broke the surface; there was a lot more beneath the soil. Hommel used a tractor to free the beast and tow it to his home. Later, when he and his wife DeeDee got it weighed on the feed store scale, the rock registered a whopping 760 pounds (345 kilograms). Hommel with others returned to the site and recovered an additional 70 pounds (32 kilograms) of loose fragments scattered about the area.
At this point, Frank and DeeDee couldn’t be certain it was a meteorite. Yes, it attracted a magnet, a good sign, but the attraction was weak. Frank had his doubts. To prove one way or another whether this rusty boulder came from space or belonged to the Earth, DeeDee sent a photo of it to Eric Twelker of Juneau, Alaska, a meteorite seller who maintains the Meteorite Market website.Twelker thought it looked promising and wrote back saying so. Six months later, the family sent him a sample which he arranged to have tested by Dr. Tony Irving at the University of Washington.
Irving’s analysis revealed bright grains of iron-nickel metal and an abundance of chondrules, round grains composed of minerals that were flash-heated into a “fiery rain” in the solar nebula 4.5 billion years ago. When they cooled, the melted material congealed into small solid spheres several millimeters across that were later incorporated into the planetary embryos that grew into today’s planets and asteroids. Finding iron-nickel and chondrules proved beyond a shadow that the Hommels’ rock was a genuine stone from space.
In an e-mail communication, Twelker recounted his part of the story:
“I get about six to a dozen inquiries on rocks every day. I try to answer all of them — and give a rock ID if possible. I have to say my patience gets tried sometimes after looking at slag, basalt, and limestone day after day. But if I am in the right mood, then it is fun. This one made it fun. Over the years, I’ve probably had a half dozen discoveries this way, but this is by far the most exciting.”
Irving pigeonholed it as an L4 chondrite meteorite. L stands for low-iron and chondrite indicates it still retains its ancient texture of chondrules that have been little altered since their formation. No one knows how long the meteorite has sat there, but the weathering of its surface would seem to indicate for a long time. That said, Hommel had been this way before and never noticed the rock. It’s possible that wind gradually removed the loosely-bound upper soil layer — a process called deflation — gradually exposing the meteorite to view over time.
Once a meteorite has been analyzed and classification, the information is published in the Meteorite Bulletin along with a chemical analysis and circumstances of its discovery. Meteorites are typically named after the nearest town or prominent geographical feature where they’re discovered or seen to fall. Because it was found on the outskirts of Clarendon, Texas, the Hommels’ meteorite took the town’s name. The little “c” in parentheses after the name indicates it’s the third unique meteorite found in the Clarendon area. Clarendon (b) turned up in 1981 and Clarendon (a) in 1979. Both are H5 (high metal) unrelated stony chondrites.
When Clarendon (c) showed up in the Bulletin late last month, meteorite hunter, dealer and collector Ruben Garcia, better known as Mr. Meteorite, quickly got wind of it. Garcia lives in Phoenix and since 1998 has made his livelihood buying and selling meteorites. He got into the business by first asking himself what would be the funnest thing he could do with his time. The answer was obvious: hunt meteorites!
These rusty rocks, chips off asteroids, have magical powers. Ask any meteorite collector. Touch one and you’ll be transported to a time before life was even a twinkle in evolution’s eye. Their ancientness holds clues to that deepest of questions — how did we get here? Scientists zap them with ion beams, cut them into translucent slices to study under the microscope and even dissolve them in acid in search of clues for how the planets formed.
Garcia contacted the Hommels and posed a simple question:
“Hey, you have a big meteorite on your property. Do you want to sell it?”
They did. So Mr. Meteorite put the word out and two days later Texas Christian University made an offer to buy it. After a price was agreed upon, Garcia began making plans to return to Clarendon soon, load up the massive missive from the asteroid belt on his trailer and truck it to the university where the new owner plans to put it on public display, a centerpiece for all to admire.
Visit the largest chondrite ever found in Texas
“How amazing to walk into a dude ranch and see a museum quality specimen,” said Garcia on his first impression of the stone. “I’ve never seen a meteorite this big outside of a museum or gem show.” Ruben joined Frank to collect a few additional fragments which he plans to put up for sale sometime soon.
So how does Clarendon (c) rank weigh-wise to other meteorite falls and finds? Digging through my hallowed copy of Monica Grady’s Catalogue of Meteorites, it’s clear that iron meteorites take the cake for record weights among all meteorites.
But when it comes to stony chondrites, Clarendon (c) is by far the largest individual space rock to come out of Texas. It also appears to be the second largest individual chondrite meteorite ever found in the United States. Only the Paragould meteorite, which exploded over Arkansas in 1930, dropped a larger individual — 820 pounds (371.9 kg) of pure meteorite goodness that’s on display at the Arkansas Center for Space and Planetary Sciences in Fayetteville. There’s truth to the saying that everything’s bigger in Texas.
Every meteorite has a story. Some are witnessed falls, while others fall unnoticed only to be discovered decades or centuries later. The Clarendon meteorite parent body spent billions of years in the asteroid belt before an impact broke off a fragment that millions of years later found its way to Earth. Did this chip off the old block bury itself in Texas soil 100 years ago, a thousand? No one can say for sure yet. But one April afternoon in 2015 they stopped a man and his horse dead in their tracks.
*** If you’d like tips on starting your own meteorite collection, check out my new book, Night Sky with the Naked Eye. It covers all the wonderful things you can see in the night sky without special equipment plus additional topics including meteorites. The book publishes on Nov. 8, but you can pre-order it right now at these online stores. Just click an icon to go to the site of your choice — Amazon, Barnes & Noble or Indiebound. It’s currently available at the first two outlets for a very nice discount:
It came from outer space—literally! On Tuesday, May 17, 2016, the early morning sky briefly lit up with the brilliant flash of a fireball—that is, an extremely bright meteor—over much of eastern New England states and even parts of southeastern Canada.
The event, which occurred around 12:50 a.m. EDT (04:50 UTC), was reported by witnesses from Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, Ontario, and Québec, and captured on several automated cameras like a webcam in Portsmouth, NH (seen above) and a police dashcam in Plattsburgh, NY (below).
The fireball appeared to be moving from southwest to northeast and for some witnesses created an audible sonic boom, heard (and felt) several minutes later.
Meteors are the result of debris in space rapidly entering Earth’s upper atmosphere, compressing the air and causing it to quickly release energy in the form of heat and optical light. If the entering object is massive enough it may violently disintegrate during its fall, creating both light and sound. This particular meteor technically classifies as a bolide, due to its brightness, eruption, and visible fragmentation. Learn more about the various types of meteors here.
No reports of a meteorite impact at ground level have been made although I must assume there will be individuals who go on the hunt—meteorite fragments, especially those associated with witnessed events, can be quite valuable.
Did you witness the event or capture it on camera? Report your sighting of this or any other fireballs on the AMS siteand be sure to send your fireball videos or images to the American Meteor Society here.
Last Saturday, Feb. 6th, a meteorite reportedly struck a bus driver on the campus of the Bharathidasan Engineering College in southern India. Three students were also injured and several windows were shattered in some kind of explosion. Online videos and stills show a small crater left by the impact. If true, this would be the first time in recorded history a person was struck and killed by a meteorite.
Meteorite or …?
Call me skeptical. Since the purported meteorite weighed about 50 grams — just under two ounces — it would be far too small to cause an explosion or significant impact crater five feet deep and two feet wide as depicted in both video and still photos. There were also no reports of rumbles, sonic booms or sightings of a fireball streaking across the sky, sights and sounds associated with material substantial enough to penetrate the atmosphere and plunge to the ground. Shattered windows would indicate an explosion similar to the one that occurred over Chelyabinsk, Russia in February 2013. The blast wave spawned when the Russian meteorite fractured into thousands of pieces miles overhead pulverized thousands of windows with flying glass caused numerous injuries.
Another report of the “meteorite” fall out of India
According to a story that ran in The News Minute, a team led by the Indian Space Research Organization (IRSO) recovered an object 2 cm (3/4 inch) in width that weighed 50 grams and looked like a meteorite with “air bubbles on its rigid surface”. There’s also been chatter about meteor showers dropping meteorites to Earth, with various stories reporting that there no active meteor showers at the time of the driver’s death. For the record, not a single meteorite ever found has been linked to a shower. Dust and tiny bits of comets produce most shower meteors, which vaporize to fine soot in the atmosphere.
Now even NASA says that based on images posted online, the explosion is “land based” rather than a rock from space.
There have been close calls in the past most notably in Sylacauga, Alabama On November 30, 1954 at 2:46 p.m. an 8.5 lb rock crashed through the roof of a home not far from that town, hit a radio console, bounced off the floor and struck the hand and hip of 31-year-old Ann Hodges who was asleep on the couch at the time. She awoke in surprise and pain thinking that a space heater had blown up. But when she noticed the hole in the roof and a rock on the floor, Hodges figured the neighborhood kids had been up to no good.
Fortunately her injuries weren’t serious. Ann became a sudden celebrity; her photo even appeared on the cover of Life magazine with a story titled “A Big Bruiser From The Sky”. In 1956 she donated the meteorite to the Alabama Museum of Natural History in Tuscaloosa, where you can still see it to this day. A second meteorite from the fall weighing 3.7 lbs. was picked up the following day by Julius K. McKinney in the middle of a dirt road. McKinney sold his fragment to the Smithsonian and used the money to purchase a small farm and used car.
Claims of people getting hit by meteorites have been on the increase in the past few years with the growth of the social media. Some stories have been deliberately made up and none have been verified. This would appear to be another tall tale if only based upon the improbabilities. In the meantime I’ve dug around and discovered another story that’s more probable and may indeed be the truth, though I have no way as of yet to independently verify it.
Police at the college say that two of the school’s gardeners were burning materials from the garden when the fire inadvertently set off sticks of dynamite that had been abandoned “amid the rocks” when the college was first built. The driver, by the name of Kamaraj and another driver, Sultan, were drinking water nearby when they were hit by the shrapnel and flying glass. Kamaraj began bleeding and was rushed to a hospital but died on the way. More HERE.
In the meantime, we only hope officials get to the bottom of the tragic death.
Asteroids, meteors, and meteorites … It might be fair to say these rocks from space inspire both wonder and fear among us Earthlings. But knowing a bit more about each of them and how they differ may eliminate some potential misgivings. While all these rocks originate from space, they have different names depending their location — i.e. whether they are hurtling through space or hurtling through the atmosphere and impacting Earth’s surface.
In simplest terms here are the definitions:
Asteroid: a large rocky body in space, in orbit around the Sun.
Meteoroid: much smaller rocks or particles in orbit around the Sun.
Meteor: If a meteoroid enters the Earth’s atmosphere and vaporizes, it becomes a meteor, which is often called a shooting star.
Meteorite: If a small asteroid or large meteoroid survives its fiery passage through the Earth’s atmosphere and lands on Earth’s surface, it is then called a meteorite.
Another related term is bolide, which is a very bright meteor that often explodes in the atmosphere. This can also be called a fireball.
Let’s look at each in more detail:
Asteroids are found mainly in the asteroid belt, between Mars and Jupiter. Sometimes their orbits get perturbed or altered and some asteroids end up coming closer to the Sun, and therefore closer to Earth. In addition to the asteroid belt, however, there have been recent discussions among astronomers about the potential existence of large number asteroids in the Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud. You can read a paper about this concept here, and a good article discussing the topic here.
Asteroids are sometimes referred to as minor planets or planetoids, but in general, they are rocky bodies that do not have an atmosphere. However, a few have their own moons. Our Solar System contains millions of asteroids, many of which are thought to be the shattered remnants of planetesimals – bodies within the young Sun’s solar nebula that never grew large enough to become planets.
The size of what classifies as an asteroid is not extremely well defined, as an asteroid can range from a few meters wide – like a boulder — to objects that are hundreds of kilometers in diameter. The largest asteroid is asteroid Ceres at about 952 km (592 miles) in diameter, and Ceres is so large that it is also categorized as a dwarf planet.
Most asteroids are made of rock, but as we explore and learn more about them we know that some are composed of metal, mostly nickel and iron. According to NASA, a small portion of the asteroid population may be burned-out comets whose ices have evaporated away and been blown off into space. Recently, astronomers have discovered some asteroids that mimic comets in that gas and dust are emanating from them, and as we mentioned earlier, there appears to be a large number of bodies with asteroid-like compositions but comet-like orbits.
How Often Do Asteroids Hit Earth?
While we know that some asteroids pass very close to Earth’s orbit around the Sun, we’ve been lucky in the history of humanity that we haven’t had a large asteroid hit Earth in the past several thousand years. It wasn’t until satellite imagery of Earth became widely available that scientists were able to see evidence of past asteroid impacts.
One of the more famous impact craters on Earth is Meteor Crater in Arizona in the US, which was made by an impact about 50,000 years ago. But there are about 175 known impact around the world – a few are quite large, like Vredefort Crater in South Africa which has an estimated radius of 190 kilometers (118 miles), making it the world’s largest known impact structure on Earth. Another notable impact site is off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, and is believed to be a record of the event that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. You can see images of some of the most impressive Earth impact craters here.
These days, asteroid impacts are less of a threat. NASA estimates that about once a year an automobile-sized asteroid enters Earth’s atmosphere, creates an impressive fireball and disintegrates before ever reaching the surface. Studies of Earth’s history indicate that about once every 5,000 years or so on average an object the size of a football field hits Earth and causes significant damage. Once every few million years on average an object large enough to cause regional or global disaster impacts Earth. You can find more information about the frequency of impacts in this article from NASA.
Meteors, Meteoroids and Bolides
Space debris smaller than an asteroid are called meteoroids. A meteoroid is a piece of interplanetary matter that is smaller than an asteroid and frequently are only millimeters in size. Most meteoroids that enter the Earth’s atmosphere are so small that they vaporize completely and never reach the planet’s surface. When they burn up during their descent, they create a beautiful trail of light known as a meteor, sometimes called a shooting star.
Mostly these are harmless, but larger meteors that explode in the atmosphere – sometimes called bolides — can create shockwaves, which can cause problems. In February 2013 a meteor that exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia shattered windows with its air blast. This meteoroid or bolide was estimated to be 18 meters (59 feet) in diameter. In 1908, a rocky meteoroid less than 100 meters in diameter is believed to have entered the atmosphere over the Tunguska region of Siberia in 1908 and the resulting shockwave knocked down trees for hundreds of square kilometers
How often is Earth hit by meteroids?
Because of the Chelyabinsk meteor in 2013, astronomers have acquired more information about the frequency of larger meteors that hit Earth, and there is now a growing consensus that the Earth gets hit by bigger space rocks more often than we previously thought. You can read more about that concept here.
This video from the B612 Foundation shows a visualization of the location of 26 space rocks that hit Earth between 2000 and 2013, each releasing energy equivalent to some of our most powerful nuclear weapons. The B612 foundation says that a Hiroshima-scale asteroid explosion happens in our atmosphere on average once a year, but many are not detected because they explode high in the atmosphere, or because most of the Earth’s surface is water and even a large percentage of land is fairly uninhabited by humans.
Estimates vary of how much cosmic dust and meteors enter Earth’s atmosphere each day, but range anywhere from 5 to 300 metric tons. Satellite observations suggest that 100-300 metric tons of cosmic dust enter the atmosphere each day. This figure comes from the rate of accumulation in polar ice cores and deep-sea sediments of rare elements linked to cosmic dust, such as iridium and osmium.
But other measurements – which includes meteor radar observations, laser observations and measurements by high altitude aircraft — indicate that the input could be as low as 5 metric ton per day. Read more about this here.
If any part of a meteoroid survives the fall through the atmosphere and lands on Earth, it is called a meteorite. Although the vast majority of meteorites are very small, their size can range from about a fraction of a gram (the size of a pebble) to 100 kilograms (220 lbs) or more (the size of a huge, life-destroying boulder). Meteorites smaller than 2mm are classified as micrometeorites.
Meteorites have traditionally been divided into three broad categories, depending on their structure, chemical and isotopic composition and mineralogy. Stony meteorites are rocks, mainly composed of silicate minerals; iron meteorites that are largely composed of metallic iron-nickel; and, stony-iron meteorites that contain large amounts of both metallic and rocky material.
Meteorites have also been found on the Moon and Mars and conversely, scientists have traced the origination of the meteorites found here on Earth to four other bodies: the Moon, Mars, the asteroid 4 Vesta, and the comet Wild 2. Meteorites are the source of a great deal of the knowledge that we have have about the composition of other celestial bodies.
How Often Do Meteorites Hit Earth?
According to the Planetary Science Institute, it is estimated that probably 500 meteorites reach the surface of the Earth each year, but less than 10 are recovered. This is because most fall into water (oceans, seas or lakes) or land in remote areas of the Earth that are not accessible, or are just not seen to fall.
In short, the difference between asteroids and meteors all comes down to a question of location. Asteroids are always found in space. Once it enters an atmosphere, it becomes a meteor, and then a meteorite after it hits the ground. Each are made of the same basic materials – minerals and rock – and each originated in space. The main difference is where they are when they are being observed.
Ever since its discovery was announced earlier this year, the 3 km-wide ring structure discovered on the of Antarctica has been a source of significant interest and speculation. Initially, the discovery was seen as little more than a happy accident that occurred during a survey of East Antarctica by a WEGAS (West-East Gondwana Amalgamation and its Separation) team from the Alfred Wegener Institute.
However, after the team was interviewed by the Brussels-based International Polar Foundation, news of the find and its possible implication spread like wildfire. Initial theories for the possible origin of the ring indicated that it could be the result of the impact of a large meteor. However, since the news broke, team leader Olaf Eisen has offered an alternative explanation: that the ring structure is in fact the result of other ice-shelf processes.
As Eisen indicated in a new entry on the AWI Ice Blog: “Doug MacAyeal, glaciologist from the University of Chicago, put forward the suggestion that the ring structure could be an ice doline.” Ice dolines are round sinkholes that are caused by a pool of melt water formed within the shelf ice. They are formed by the caving in of ice sheets or glaciers, much in the same way that sinkholes form over caves.
“If the melt water drains suddenly,” he wrote, “like it often does, the surface of the glacier is destabilised and does collapse, forming a round crater. Ice depressions like this have been observed in Greenland and on ice shelves of the Antarctic Peninsula since the 1930s.”
However, in glaciers, these cavities form much more rapidly, as the meltwater created by temperature variations causes englacial lakes or water pockets to from which then drains through the ice sheet. Such dolines have been observed for decades, particularly in Greenland and the Antarctic Peninsula where the ice melts during the summertime.
Initial analysis of satellite images appear to confirm this, as they indicate that the feature could have been present before the supposed impact took place around 25 years ago. In addition, relying on data from Google Maps and Google Earth, the WEGAS (West-East Gondwana Amalgamation and its Separation) team observed that the 3 km ring is accompanied by other, smaller rings.
Such formations are inconsistent with meteorite impacts, which generally leave a single crater with a raised center. And as a general rule, these craters also measure between ten to twenty times the size of the meteorite itself – in this case, that would mean a meteorite 200 meters in diameter. This would mean that, had the ring structure been caused by a meteorite, it would have been the largest Antarctic meteor impact on record.
It is therefore understandable why the announcement of this ring structure triggered such speculation and interest. Meteorite impacts, especially record-breaking ones are nothing if not a hot news item. Too bad this does not appear to be the case.
However, the possibility that the ring structure is the result of an ice doline raises a new host of interesting questions. For one, it would indicate that dolines are much more common in East Antarctica than previously thought. Ice dolines were first noticed in the regions of West Antarctica and the Antarctic Peninsula, where rapid warming is known to take place.
East Antarctica, by contrast, has long been understood to be the coldest, windiest and driest landmass on the planet. Knowing that such a place could produce rapid warming that would lead to the creation of a significant englacial lake would certainly force scientists to rethink what they know about this continent.
“To form an ice doline this size, it would need a considerable reservoir of melt water,” Eisen said. “Therefore we would need to ask, where did all this melt water come from? Which melting processes have caused such an amount of water and how does the melting fit into the climate pattern of East Antarctica?”
In the coming months, Eisen and the AWI scientists plant to analyze the data from the Polar 6 (Eisen’s mission) measurements thoroughly, in the hopes of getting all the facts straight. Also, Jan Lenaerts – a Belgian glaciologist with AWI – is planning an land-based expedition to the site; which unfortunately due to the short Antarctic summer season and the preparation time needed won’t be taking place until the end of 2015.
But what is especially interesting, according to Eisen, is the rapid pace at which the debate surrounding the ring structure occurred. Within days of their announcement, the WEGAS team was astounded by the nature of the debate taking place in the media and on the internet (particularly Facebook), bringing together glaciologists from all around the world.
As Eisen put it in his blog entry, “For the WEGAS team, however, our experience of the last few days has shown that modern scientific discussion is not confined to the ivory towers of learned meetings, technical papers, and lecture halls, but that the public and social media play a tremendous role. For us, cut off from the modern world amongst the eternal ice, this new science seems to have happened at an almost breathtaking pace.”
This activity brought the discussion about the nature of the ring structure forward by several weeks, he claims, focusing attention on the true causes of the surprise discovery itself and comparing and contrasting possible theories.
Mars is often referred to as the Red Planet. But its signature color is only skin-deep – or, I should say, dust-deep. Beneath its rusty regolith Mars has many other hues and shades as well, from pale greys like those found inside holes drilled by Curiosity to large dark regions that are the result of ancient lava flows. Now, researchers think we may have an actual piece of one of Mars’ dark plains here on Earth in the form of a meteorite that was found in the Moroccan desert in 2011.
Classified as NWA 7034 (for Northwest Africa) the meteorite is a 320-gram (11 oz.) piece of Martian basaltic breccia made up of small fragments cemented together in a dark matrix. Nicknamed “Black Beauty,” NWA 7034 is one of the oldest meteorites ever discovered and is like nothing else ever found on Earth.
According to a new study on a fragment of the meteorite by researchers from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island and the University of New Mexico, Black Beauty is a 4.4-billion-year-old chunk of Mars’ dark crust – the only known piece of such to have landed on Earth.
While other meteorites originating from Mars have been identified, they are of entirely different types than Black Beauty.
The researchers used a hyperspectral imaging technique to obtain data from across the whole fragment. In doing this, the measurements matched what’s been detected from Mars orbit by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
“Other techniques give us measurements of a dime-sized spot,” said Kevin Cannon, a Brown University graduate student and lead author of a new paper published in the journal Icarus. “What we wanted to do was get an average for the entire sample. That overall measurement was what ended up matching the orbital data.”
In addition to indicating a truly ancient piece of another planet, these findings hint at what the surface of many parts of Mars might be like just below the rusty soil… a surface that’s been shattered and reassembled many times by meteorite impacts.
“This is showing that if you went to Mars and picked up a chunk of crust, you’d expect it to be heavily beat up, battered, broken apart and put back together,” Cannon said.