Friday morning’s headlines about the meteorite that hit Russia and the asteroid expected to come close to our planet Friday might have many people focused on the skies today. And all of the scientific terminology heard in news reports had us wondering: “What’s the difference between a meteorite and an asteroid?”
A quick check with the folks at the Spaceguard Centre and Observatory and the Aerospace Guide gave us an education about “Near Earth Objects” (NEOs). Here are the basics to help you sound smart around the office today:
Near Earth Object (NEO) – Near Earth Objects are asteroids or comets that have orbits around the Sun that bring them close to the Earth. The actual definition of an NEO is a comet or asteroid whose orbit brings it close to Earth’s orbit.
Asteroid – A relatively small, inactive body, composed of rock, carbon or metal, which is orbiting the Sun.
Comet – A relatively small, sometimes active object, which is composed of dirt and ices. Comets are characterised by dust and gas tails when in proximity to the Sun. Far from the Sun it is difficult to distinguish an asteroid from a comet.
Meteoroid – A small particle from an asteroid or comet orbiting the Sun.
Meteor – A meteoroid that is observed as it burns up in the Earth’s atmosphere – a shooting star.
Meteorite – A meteoroid that survives its passage through the Earth’s atmosphere and impacts the Earth’s surface.
In summation, an asteroid is a relatively small object out in space. When an asteroid breaks through our atmosphere and burns up, it becomes a meteor. If the asteroid manages to get all the way through our atmosphere and actually hits the surface of the planet, it is classified as a meteorite.