Meteoroids, Meteors, and Meteorites: What’s the Difference?

Finding a Meteorite on Earth!

August 7, 2020
Meteor Shower in Purple

What are the differences between an asteroid, meteoroid, meteor, and meteorite? And how do you find a meteorite? Meteorites that fall to Earth are the next best thing to space missions. Extraterrestrial material comes to us, instead of the other way around! Learn more …

To put it simply, they’re all space rocks!

  • The largest rocks are called asteroids. Think of asteroids like minor planets which orbit around the Sun just like Earth. 
  • Over time, these asteroids break down into smaller particles of rock called meteoroids. Meteoroids orbit our Sun, too. 
  • When one of those meteoroids enters the Earth’s atmosphere and vaporizes, it is called a meteor —or, shooting star. The meteor heats up and makes the air around it glow. We see a streak of light. Most meteors burn up. Scientists think up to 10,000 tons of meteors fall on the Earth each day, but most are no bigger than a speck of dust.
  • If a meteor survives its passage through the Earth’s atmosphere without burning up and lands upon the Earth’s surface, it’s called a meteorite. Meteorites range in size from tiny pebbles to boulders.

Some planets and moons don’t have enough atmosphere to protect them against meteor and asteroid impacts. Earth’s moon, Mercury and even Mars are covered with round impact craters from these collisions.

What are Meteor Showers?

We see meteor showers, or shooting stars, when the Earth travels though clouds of particles left by asteroids (or, comets).

A meteor shower appears to originate from a single point in the sky, the “radiant”. Meteors seen near the radiant are approaching the observer and will appear as short streaks in the sky. However, meteors seen 45 to 135 degrees from the radiant are moving in a more parallel direction to the observer. These meteors will produce longer streaks in the sky.

Meteor showers are usually named for the constellation in which their radiant lies at the time of shower maximum. Thus, the Leonid meteor shower (peaking about November 18) will appear to radiate from the constellation Leo.

Since Earth’s orbit is virtually the same from year to year, the showers are predictable.

Here’s the complete Meteor Showers Calendar here for the dates of all the principal meteor showers during the year.

You’ll see the most meteors on a clear, dark night during a new Moon. If you live near a brightly lit city, drive away from the lights and toward the constellation from which the meteors will appear to radiate.

To see the most meteors, watch as late in the nighttime as you can, up till dawn. To view a shower, the meteor shower radiant must be above the horizon—most radiants are up by around midnight.

Grab and lawn chair and look up: Most meteor showers are very fast! They flash by in a second or less.

What is a Meteorite?

Every day, dozens of small meteorites fall to the Earth. Those that are seen coming down are called “falls.” Those that are recovered on the ground are called “finds.”

Meteorites are of great interest to researchers as studying them helps us to understand the formation and evolution of the solar system.

Meteorites can be recognized by their dark, often scalloped exterior. Usually they will be denser than a ‘normal’ rock and will often be attracted to a magnet. If recovered, it is best to place them in a clean plastic bag or wrap them in aluminum foil. Meteorites should also be handled as little as possible to help preserve their scientific value.

If individuals plan to search, they should always obtain permission of the land-owner before venturing onto private land!

Here’s how to find meteorites:

  • Tape a strong magnet to the end of a broom handle. A meteorite contains a lot of iron, so it will stick to your magnet.
  • If it’s an ordinary rock with lots of iron, it may stick too. You can tell a meteorite by its fusion crust, a thin, glassy coating that formed when the meteorite superheated during its fall through Earth’s atmosphere.

Fun Meteorite Facts

  • The largest meteorite ever found in the United States weighed 15 tons and was found in 1902 in Willamette, Oregon.
  • Since 1978, teams of scientists have collected over 15,000 meteorite specimens from Antarctica. They are easier to find on that continent’s snow-white surface.
  • One of Canada’s most notable meteorites was found near Tagish Lake in northern British Columbia by Jim Brook on January 25, 2000. He almost mistook it for wolf poop.

Don’t worry. Most meteors are very small and the Earth is huge. Despite the current hype, and many rumors, there has been only one confirmed case of a meteor actually hitting anyone.


The Old Farmer's Almanac for Kids, Volume 1


Reader Comments

Leave a Comment

meteors & meteorites?

Have any ever been seen in daylight. I understand why they wouldn't be seen. But don't they continue to fall day and night?

meteor showers

The Editors's picture

Yes, you can see a fireball type of meteor in daylight but it must be very bright in that case (brighter than magnitude -6, according to the American Meteor Society). Especially so if it is near the sun in the sky.

what color is metour?

Hi there i am from New Zealand....Wellington and this morning on my way to work i saw a bigesh greenight with a white tail shooting from the sky it was awesome iv'e never seen anythig like it before ....i have seen plenty off shooting stars but this was a egg shape with a tail you know what it would have been it was about 5.45am in Petone Wellington 2-8-17

I saw 7 very bright, short

I saw 7 very bright, short explosions in the NW sky last night. I think it was around midnight. What was it?

It was 1978 or 1979, in a car

It was 1978 or 1979, in a car facing south at the Velda-Rose Drive-in Theater East Mesa Arizona, A seemingly vertical incoming bolide Exploded at about 45 degree elevation angle and a cone of flaming debris rained all the way to the horizon. Other people had to see this magnificent display. It could not have been man made it was all over in two or three seconds of duration.

Just checking up on the

Just checking up on the meteors

Hello. I saw a huge shooting

Hello. I saw a huge shooting star last night (Apr 24) above Kelowna BC. It was very big. If you hold your arm straight out in front of you and turn your palm to face you, it was as big as the palm of your hand. It left a long bright white trail that looked almost like the color of lightning behind it. It appeared to come from above my roof, travel halfway down to the horizon in a long white trail and then just 'disintegrate' in front of my eyes. I have never seen anything like it before and my guess is probably never again. Can anyone tell me what this might have been? I know it's Lyrid season, but this shooting star seemed to be very very close. Could it have been space debris? If anyone can shed some light on this amazing sighting I had, please let me know. Thanks and have a wonderful day.

When will the next meteor

When will the next meteor shower be visible in Toronto?

See our meteor guide here:

The Editors's picture

See our meteor guide here: You can see these meteors from anywhere in the sky.

when in August is the best

when in August is the best time to watch for a meteor shower from timberline lodge on mt. hood Oregon

The Perseids fall in August

The Editors's picture

The Perseids fall in August every year. They are usually around August 11-12 and the biggest shower of the year.

Would anyone know WHERE to

Would anyone know WHERE to go, to see meteor shower in Pembroke Pines, fla, please? Txs! Since it has to be in a dark, away from City lights spot?

To answer the most common

The Editors's picture

To answer the most common question: Yes, you can see these meteor showers from ANYWHERE in the sky, provided it's clear and dark, away from all the city lights. The big PERSEID meteor shower (the best of the year) is NOW (Aug 11-12-13). Good luck catching a falling star!  See the link to the Meteor Shower Guide above for more viewing tips.

Wish I could see any of the

Wish I could see any of the meteor showers before I die. Aurora too.

I am going to camp angelfish

I am going to camp angelfish August 12-17 when can I see a shooting star?

You're in luck. The Perseid

The Editors's picture

You're in luck. The Perseid Meteor Showers (one of the best and most reliable) happen August 11 and 12. Here's hoping for clear skies! See the Meteor Shower Chart here:

I have always wanted to see

I have always wanted to see meteor showers, but living in the city with much lights causes a blindness. Now I think I am living in an area where my back yard becomes dark, so, perhaps this year.

The Perseids are around the

The Editors's picture

The Perseids are around the corner! Best of luck with dark skies. See the Meteor Shower Chart for details: