For the past few days and mostly likely for the next few weeks, the news of a meteor in Russia appears in just about every newspaper and science magazine. For many of us, we are interested in the one in a hundred years event but we are unfamiliar with the scientific jargons. Common ones are the meteoroid, meteor and meteorite. Why are there three names for one thing? Aren’t they all just a rock from space?
It turns out that these three definitions are only slightly different. The gigantic space rock starts off as a meteoroid from space. The meteoroid travels in a vacuum, allowing it to reach over 100,000 km/hr. This is due to the fact that there are no friction force slowing it down. The absence of friction force also prevents it from igniting. As the meteoroid travels through the seemly endless space, it miraculously reaches the gravitational field of Earth and gets sucked in. The Earth’s gravitational force causes the meteoroid to accelerate into the atmosphere as predicted from Newton’s second Law.
All of a sudden, the meteoroid turns into a meteor. The meteor will ignite into flames because the compression of gas (air) when it pokes through the atmosphere and the presence of air friction will cause a dramatic increase in temperature. Capable of reaching 1650 degrees Celsius, the meteor will light up the sky as we watch in awe. Unfortunately, the scene will only exists for a seconds because the meteor will either burn up before it reaches solid Earth or hit the ground and become meteorites.
It is the detrimental effect of impact of the meteorite that makes us ambivalent about seeing the meteor. It is such a beautiful sight but we all know that the meteor can do immense damage when it hits the Earth. For example, the 50 feet diameter meteorite in Russia is equivalent to 30 Hiroshima atomic bombs.
In conclusion, the difference between a meteoroid, meteor and meteorite is its location. If it is in space, it is know as a meteoroid. If it is in the Earth’s atmosphere, it is a meteor. And finally, if it impacts the ground, it is a meteorite. Now, the numerous articles about the meteorite in Russia will hopefully become more clear.