Astronomy For Beginners: What Is A Meteor
The Sky Is Falling... Or Is It?
Have you ever made a wish on a shooting star? Well, while I hope your wish came true, I’m afraid I have bad news- that wasn’t really a star (shocker huh), although it was falling.
What you saw was a Meteor (meet - ee - or). On this page we’ll talk about what Meteors are and where they come from, why they’re so important to us here on Earth, and what happens when they hit Earth.
What Is A Meteor
Now I know what some of you are thinking: “What is a Meteor”, well to answer that we need to start way out in space. You see, despite it’s name, space is actually pretty cluttered (at least in our solar system anyway) and there’s lot’s of stuff moving around. One of the things up there are Meteoroids.
Meteoroids are pieces of debris that are just floating around in space. They can be pieces of comets, the result of a collision of Asteroids, or even material left over from the formation of our solar system (see, sometimes there really are extra pieces left over).
While they’re out there in space just going about their business, they’re called Meteoroids, but once they hit Earth’s atmosphere (actually it’s more accurate to say “once Earth’s atmosphere hit’s them”), they get to change their name to Meteors. That’s when we get to see the show. Long trails of fire, zipping across the night sky. Anything that doesn't burn up in our atmosphere, and actually manages to make it to the surface, is called a Meteorite.
Leonid Meteor 2009
A Meteor Shower
Why Are Meteors So Important?
Meteors are important to us here on Earth for a few reasons. First, they give us a good look at what kinds of materials there are just floating around out in space. Now while that may not seem like anything special, it gives us a good look at the same kinds of building blocks that helped form the Earth and the other planets. In fact, there are a growing number of scientists who think that life on Earth may owe it’s existence to early Meteors that hit the Earth billions of years ago.
The Murnpeowie Meteorite
What Happens When A Meteor Hit’s The Earth
So what happens when Earth gets hit by a Meteor? Well, in most cases, nothing. The vast majority of Meteoroids that Earth runs into burn up in our thick atmosphere and never even make it to the surface. The ones that do make it to the surface are usually small- very small. Most meteorites are as small as a grain of sand, or as large as a basketball, but, from time to time, Earth runs into something a little larger.
Now before we go any further, I want you to forget what you see in the movies. Hollywood is great for entertainment, but you need to remember that it’s only fiction. With that being said, I’m afraid they've pretty much got it right as far as Earth impacts go. The good news is, these types of impacts are rare , and I don’t mean like “hardly ever” rare, I mean “only a hand full of times in the last 250 million years ” type rare. The last “major impact” was 65 million years ago (the one that killed the dinosaurs). There have been some pretty bad impacts since then (like the one in Siberia in 1908), but nothing even close to that scale.
Now for the “glass-half-empty ” part. At some point in the future, the Earth will have another major impact, it’s just a matter of time. Now before you go and hide in the basement, relax, detection technology is improving every day to help us spot these big guys decades (and sometimes, centuries) in advance. We also have something that no other Earth inhabitant has ever had when dealing with a major impact- technology. So, don’t worry about the sky falling anytime soon.
The Geminid Meteor Shower
Second Star To The Right...
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