What is the Difference Between a Meteor and a Meteorite?

MeteorIf you’ve ever stayed up late to watch a meteor shower, you probably wonder what happens to it after it fades away?  How big was it?  Where did it land?

What is the main difference between the meteor that you just saw light up the night sky and the meteorite that finally landed on Earth?

Before you see the streak of light, the meteor was technically a “meteoroid” – a small piece of interplanetary matter that typically originates from comets, asteroids, the Moon or even Mars!

When the meteoroid enters the Earth’s atmosphere it officially becomes a “meteor” – which is the actual “shooting star” that you see traveling across the sky.  The friction from going through the atmosphere causes it to essentially burn up.  It may completely disintegrate or part of it could survive and land somewhere on Earth.

A “meteorite” is the final, resulting debris that survives the journey through the atmosphere and lands on the surface of the Earth.

A Meteor is a Shooting Star

When you witness a falling star during a meteor shower, you are witnessing the meteoroid burning up in the Mesophere, which is the middle layer of the atmosphere that has more gas to create friction, heat and cause it to start burning up as it continues to fall.  To give you an idea how far away it is, the bottom of it is around 31 miles away and the top around 53 miles high.

The interesting thing is many of the meteors you see are not very big at all – the size of a grain of sand, rice or maybe as big as a pea.  Larger meteors will tend to be brighter, have longer tails.  The largest meteors are usually called fireballs.  When a fireball hits, you will usually hear about it on the news and the big time meteorite hunters may descend on the area to try to find it.

How Many Meteorites Hit the Earth Every Day?

Since most meteorites end up in the ocean, it is not easy to get a completely accurate number.   Estimates can be determined by sampling the number of meteors visible in a certain location and then assume most other areas have a similar number, add everything up and average it out.  You could then adjust calculations based on how much actual land is on Earth vs. water.  Algorithms have likely been created to figure out how many fall in prime hunting locations such as dry lake beds, big fields or on a frozen lake.

Here’s where things get tricky.  Most of the meteorites that make it to the ground may be too small to see with the naked eye.  There are micrometeorites that make up the large majority.  Decent sized meteorites that are collector worthy make up about 10% or less of the total of all meteorites, so I have seen estimates of around 500 meteorites per year or about 40 per day.

A study published by Cornell estimates around 37k to 78k tons of total material fall each year.

Another study found that around 2,900 to 7,300 kg of meteorites land on the Earth’s surface every year (size range from 10g to 1 kg).  High estimates calculate around 2,300 per day around the entire surface that are larger than 10 grams.  A meteorite weight 10 grams could be around 2-3 centimeters wide.

Where Do Meteorites Land?

Meteorites land everywhere, mostly in the ocean.  They do not change course just because one is headed towards a populated location.

The question you may want to know is where did the meteorite I just saw land?  That is a more difficult question and requires more calculations.

If you see one that you would like to try to find – especially if it is a huge fireball like the Chelyabinsk meteorite that hit in Russia in 2013, you should take video if you can, make a note of your exact location you were when you saw it, how high the starting and ending points were and the headings for the starting and ending points.  Photos and video will be your most valuable tool.  Take as many notes as you can while everything is fresh in your head.

You can also report a fireball to the American Meteor Society.  If more people provide data on specific events it makes it easier to calculate the path and hopefully find the resulting meteorite.

See https://www.amsmeteors.org/members/imo_view/browse_events

How Can I Find Meteorites?

The easiest way to find meteorites is to go to locations that are the easiest and most convenient to you.  Dry lake beds are usually the best place as they are easy to spot and you don’t have to worry as much about erosion hiding them – typically they will still be sitting on top of the surface, ready to pick up.  Warm, dry climates are best.

Use the Meteoritical Society database to display locations where meteorites have been discovered the most.  Of course, the top locations will likely attract other meteorite hunters, so this can increase the competition a bit.

They also have a List of Dense Meteorite Collection Areas where you can see the top locations in the world.  Even includes KML files to use with Google Earth.  If you sort by “Number named” you will see that Antarctica is the best spot in the world to find meteorites.  🙂

Once you figure out where you want to search you will need meteorite hunting tools.  The most basic tool is a meteorite stick which is basically a long stick with a magnet on the end.  If you see something that looks like a meteorite, simply touch it with the magnet and if it sticks, there is a decent chance it could be one.

You can also use a metal detector.  Gold hunting metal detectors are usually the most accurate.  You may want to know what a meteorite sounds like under a metal detector and you’re in luck as I’ve found a good video on that topic.  Smart tip… if you can buy a few meteorites online, this will help you to tune your metal detector before you start hunting.

How Do I Know if I’ve Found a Meteorite?

If you think you have found a meteorite, you will want to identify it to make sure before you start telling tall tales.

A good place to start is on Reddit at r/meteorites – post a photo and tell your story.  Hopefully they will let you know if it is the real thing and not a “meteorwrong”.

Some basic tests you can go through include the magnet test – most, but not all meteorites have magnetic properties.  So if it doesn’t pass the magnet test don’t throw it out yet.  Always keep anything you think might be a meteorite until a positive identification has been found.

How heavy does the rock feel in your hands compared to one with a similar size?  Since most meteorites are made of iron and nickel, a meteorite will feel heavier than a typical rock.

Visual inspection should reveal a fusion crust, chondrules,  regmaglypt texture – also know as “thumbprints”.

Here is a great flow chart that can help you determine if you have a meteorite in your possession from the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Washington University.

http://meteorites.wustl.edu/check-list.htm

Conclusion

I hope this article has helped you to understand the main difference between a meteor and a meteorite as well as introduce you to the other meteoroid phase.

Please keep this site bookmarked for more tips, tricks and information on meteorite hunting as well as where to buy and sell your own meteorites.

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