Universe Guide

Meteors, Meteorites and Meteoroids

What is a Meteor?

A Meteor also known as a falling star is an object normally a rock or dirt that burns up in the upper atmosphere. Sometime the rock is big enough for the burning to be spotted by people on the ground but the meteor can burn up without anyone noticing. Meteor, Meteorite and Meteroid are three terms that refer to the different stages in which a piece of debris travels through space and lands on Earth.

Stages and Differences of Meteroid, Meteor and Meteorite

Types and Compositions of a Meteorites

There are two main types of Meteorites that land, Stone and Iron. A third, a hybrid version is Stony-Irons.

Stone Meteorites

Stone are just that, stone, they resemble the same stones that are found on Earth. You won't be able to tell that they are meteorite just by looking at them unless you knew it fell from the sky. The meteorites composition is made up of olivine, pyroxene and to a lesser extent, iron and nickel.

Iron Meteorites

These are more easy to recognise as they contain iron and nickel compared to stones. These meteorites are magnetic so when looking for them, be sure to take a magnet. They are the most likely to be found because they are more easy to distinguish between Earth rocks and non-Earth.

Stony-Iron Meteorites

Whilst stone meteorites might contain a small amount of nickel and iron, these hybrid contain a lot more nickel than the normal meteorites.

Radio-active Meteorites

Not really a type but I thought I'd add a few words here about them. Meteorites are not as radio-active as a smoke alarm which contains Americium for instance. They may give off some radiation but not for long. The radiation that Meteorites do give off are no more radioactive as your bog-standard Earth rocks. If that doesn't assure, please refer to Armagh Planetarium or Meteorite for more information.

Detecting a Meteor Threat

In reality, there are so many meteoroids up there and so small a number of people looking that its going to take a lot of luck to find the doomsday object. It is alleged that a meteor collision with the upper atmosphere was detected causing Defense staff to wake President Bill Clinton. New Scientist.

In 1908 a meteorite exploded over Tunguska, Siberia, Russia destroying a large area of land. Death was minimal because it was a relatively low inhabited part of the world. Another meteorite crashed into a village in Canada at about the beginning or before the 20th Century which did cause death. The aftermath of a meteor crash on New York would be incalculable. The likelihood of a meteor smash on a heavily populated is tiny, these area cover a fraction of the earth surface so the possibility of it hitting a densely populated area is small.

When a Meteor is detected, it is usually never kept secret, it is revealed in press briefings. Sometimes the Meteor is only detected late and by that time has proven not to be a threat.

The worlds land mass takes up only a third so it is more likely it would hit into the water but they you would have to worry about a tidal wave. It should be remembered a meteorite is blamed for the death of the dinosaurs which people believe will happen again. All it takes is for a meteor that is 3 miles wide ( roughly the size of Canvey Island ) to crash into the earth to cause all or the majority of life to disappear. Every year the earth are hit by meteor showers as it orbits the Sun, Most if not all meteor showers are associated with a Meteor and when they approach the sun then the shower can be spectacular. Below is a table detailing a small number of meteor showers that we encounter every year.

Day and Night Time Meteor Strike

A meteor hitting the Earths atmosphere is just as likely during the day when one side is facing the Sun as it is facing away. If you look at the picture in this picture from N.A.S.A. , you can see the number of recorded asteroid strikes (1994-2013) on the upper atmosphere. Although the night are slightly more frequent than day, it is therefore evident that the Earth doesn't need to be facing away from the Sun to be hit.

Picture of Night and Day Meteor Strikes on Earth - 1994 - 2013

Chances of Death from a Meteor Strike

Its not unknown but extremely rare that anyone has ever been hit by a meteor strike. There are a number of cases where people have been killed but you will have to search hard for evidence of such an incident. Someone posted on Quora, the question and answer site a list of incidents where people died. The most recent death was on 15 August 1951 when twelve people were killed in Tehran, Iran from a meteor shower.

When the meteor broke up over Chelyabinsk, there were about 1500 injured, some serious enough to warrant hospitalisation. However there were no deaths reported, in part due to it happening during the morning when people were up. If you watch the following Video which was posted on You Tube, it shows what happened when the meteor hit. Watching the video, you can see the best thing to do is to MOVE away from glass because the shockwave of the meteor smash windows.

A researcher at the South West Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, USA did a presentation on chances of death from different events. The 2007 Powerpoint presentation can still be downloaded from their site. In short, the odds are :-

Don't have nightmares and continue as you were living your life.

Motor Vehicle Accident1 in 90
Murder1 in 185
Fire1 in 250
Firearms Accident1 in 2,500
Drowning1 in 9,000
Flood1 in 27,000
Airplane Crash1 in 30,000
Tornado1 in 60,000
Asteroid/Comet Impact Global1 in 75,000
Earthquake1 in 130,000
Lightning1 in 135,000
Asteroid/Comet Impact Regional1 in 1,600,000
Food Poisoning by Botulism1 in 3,000,000
Shark Attack1 in 8,000.000
Odds of winning the PowerBall1 in 195,249,054

Theia - Most Devastating Meteor Strike

Whilst Chelyabinsk may well be the meteor strike that most people might think of because it is recent. The dinosaurs were wiped out allegedly by a meteorite hitting the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico resulting is the destruction of nearly all life. Crocodiles are one form of life that survived the devastation. The meteorite of the dinosaurs occurred 65 Million Years ago.

The most devastating in terms of size of the meteor was Theia. Although it is hypothetical to have existed, there is strong evidence that it did. In the early Solar System, when the Earth was young and didn't have life on it, we are talking 3.5 Billion or more years ago. The Earth was involved in a collision with a planetoid now referred to as Theia. Theia was about 3,700 Miles wide. It smashed into the Earth causing a large chunk of both planets to be blasted into space.

The resulting debris from the collision would eventually coalesce and form the moon. The Moon is currently moving about three centimeters a year away from us and it will not hit us unless there's some super outside forces to change its direction. Eventually, the moon will break free from Earth's gravity and be free floating. It will not happen in our lifetime.

Dealing with a Meteor Threat

Given enough warning, the greatest minds on the planet could put together a plan to stop the meteor from destroying all life on Earth. The ideas could range from firing a massive nuclear missile at the meteor and breaking it up. There is a big problem with using a nuclear device in that you can't be sure that the meteor would break into enough small pieces that it doesn't cause a mass extinction. Even so, when the missile hits the meteor, the meteor will break up and each rock will be radioactive so if they fell to Earth, whichever side of the planet they fell on, there will a huge amount of radioactive area on the planet.

A better way to resolve the situation is to do something that will nudge the meteor out of the path of the Earth. The earlier you did this, the less energy and angle of movement is needed to cause the large rock to change course and get out of the way. This is the one favoured by most people.

If a meteor hit the Earth, it would cause just as much damage if it hit the water as it did if it hit landfall. When the rock hits the water, a Tsunami would destroy everything in its path.

In the BBC Series, Space with Sam Neil, Tech Sgt. Rob Medrano of the United States Air Force said that they monitor the skies for possible meteor strikes. They notice about roughly four major meteor strikes a month.

Hollywood Movies

A lot of people have heard of this phenomena thanks to the Hollywood blockbusters Meteor (1979), Deep Impact and Armageddon ( Both 1998 ). In those films, the scientists know what is going to happen so they can prevent it. The scientists in the films come up with elaborate plans on how to destroy the meteor but in reality, wouldn't work.

Meteor Showers

For more on this, please see Meteor Showers

Related Pages of Interest :-

Comments and Questions

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C. Sheats
I really appreciate you information. It hadn't clicked that the different names had specific meanings until you pointed it out. I only have one question. You said, "It is said a meteor collision with the upper atmosphere that caused the American President to be woken up." What president, when? Thanks for your info, I especially appreciated the list of meteor showers.
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