What Is the Difference Between Meteoroids, Meteors, and Meteorites?
Away from the city lights, on any clear night, “shooting stars” can be seen flashing through the sky. They are not stars, of course, but small bits of rock and metal from outer space. Most of them are no bigger than a grain of sand. While they are whizzing through space, these tiny particles are called meteoroids.
Most meteoroids that enter the Earth’s atmosphere are so small that they vaporize completely and never reach the planet’s surface. The fastest meteoroids travel through the solar system at a speed of around 42 kilometers per second (26 miles per second).
A small percentage of meteoroids fly on a path that goes into the Earth’s atmosphere and then back out again, they are known as Earth grazing fireballs.
When one enters Earth’s blanket of air, it burns up from frictional heating, and glows as a quick streak of light that is called a meteor. “Meteor” refers to the flash of light caused by the debris, not the debris itself.
The Earth’s atmosphere experiences millions of meteors every day. Meteors are easier to see during the lower light conditions of night. When many meteors occur in a close time frame in the same part of the sky it is called a meteor shower.
If it survives the hot journey through the atmosphere, and strikes the ground, it is known as 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).
Around 500 meteorites reach the Earth’s surface every year but of those only around 5 ever make it to scientists for study. Meteorites that are observed as they fall through the Earth’s atmosphere and later recovered are called ‘falls’, all others are called ‘finds’. To this date there have been around 1000 collected ‘falls’ and 40000 ‘finds’.