DENTON EBEL (Curator, Division of Physical Sciences):
There are a lot of terms that involve the word “meteor”. Meteorites are rocks from space that have hit the ground and we have recovered. We recover them mostly in deserts, hot deserts like the Sahara Desert, or cold deserts, like Antarctica.
If we observe something flying through the sky, it might be a meteor shower—little, tiny things the size of a grain of sand or a grain of rice that are leftovers of comets and so forth that we have plowed through as if were a car on a highway and they’re like bugs on our windshield.
There is also a class of object called meteoroids. And a good example is one that flew over the Tetons and was actually filmed in 1972. It was an object that came through the atmosphere, made a trail, people saw it, and then flew right out. So it sort of skipped off the atmosphere. And we call that a meteoroid.
It’s not a meteorite. It’s not a meteor. So, must be a meteoroid.
Space rocks come in all shapes and sizes. When debris from an asteroid or comet approaches Earth’s atmosphere, factors such as its flight path and whether it vaporizes before it hits the ground determines its scientific classification. Learn the terminology surrounding meteors and know what to look for the next time a brilliant, falling object appears in the sky.