Launching and Recovering Meteorites

The Arthur Ross Hall of Meteorites

Educator's Guide: Activity

Overview: Finding meteorites is not an easy task. For one, the Earth is covered mostly with water and so most meteorites fall into the oceans. Many chondrites resemble Earth rocks and so go unnoticed. Iron meteorites are more easily distinguished, if someone happens to find one. Even meteorites that are observed to fall are often hard to locate on the ground. The location of fallen meteorites is determined by the angle, speed, and size of the meteorite. In fact, most meteorites are found in Antarctica or in desert regions, where they are easily spotted.

Resource use:
In this activity students will work in groups to investigate the fall and recovery of meteorites. Each group will consist of a Meteorite Fall team and a Recovery team. Each group will work in a different location. Suggested locations would be a playground (concrete), sandbox (sandy area), driveway or walkway (gravel area), and lawn (grass or shrubby area).

Each Meteorite Fall team will prepare 2 meteorites as follows: fill a balloon with 1/2 cup of flour to simulate ejected crater material. Add 15 small pebbles (colored aquarium pebbles are best) to simulate meteorite fragments. Fill each balloon 1/2 full with water (Do not shake!) and tie securely.

Briefly discuss with students how they might go about locating a meteorite and how they would distinguish it from an Earth rock. Ask students where they think the best places to locate meteorites would be. Demonstrate meteorite recovery by conducting this demonstration.

Have the Meteorite Fall teams go to a designated location and launch ONE meteorite, by either throw the balloon up in the air so that it impacts vertically or by throwing it with great velocity at an angle so that it breaks and scatters. (Caution students to stand a safe distance from the impact area.) Directly afterwards, have the Recovery teams visit their designated sites. Have them sketch the impact pattern of ejecta and meteorite fragments, record the type of terrain, determine, if they can, the angle and velocity of the launch, and the number of meteorite fragments recovered. Have students pick up balloon fragments and pebbles after each launch.

Send the Meteorite Fall team out again. This time they should launch the meteorite in the alternate way. If they let it impact vertically the first time, they launch it at an angle the second time. After the launch, have the Recovery Teams repeat their part of the demonstration. Have groups discuss their findings and then share them with the class. Use the following questions to guide the discussion:

  • What surface was the easiest for pebble recovery? Why?
  • How was the scatter pattern affected by the angle of impact?
  • How was the scatter pattern affected by the ground surface?
  • Did the velocity of the balloon affect the scatter pattern? How?
  • Based on your data, where would be the best places to find meteorites?

As a follow-up to this activity, have students visited this Internet site to learn about meteorite recovery in Antarctica: