A meteorite is a natural object originating in outer space that survives impact with the Earth's surface. Meteorites can be big or small. Most meteorites derive from small astronomical objects called meteoroids, but they are also sometimes produced by impacts of asteroids. When it enters the atmosphere, impact pressure causes the body to heat up and emit light, thus forming a fireball, also known as a meteor or shooting/falling star. The term bolide refers to either an extraterrestrial body that collides with the Earth, or to an exceptionally bright, fireball-like meteor regardless of whether it ultimately impacts the surface.
More generally, a meteorite on the surface of any celestial body is a natural object that has come from elsewhere in space. Meteorites have been found on the Moon and Mars.
Meteorites that are recovered after being observed as they transited the atmosphere or impacted the Earth are called falls. All other meteorites are known as finds. As of February 2010, there are approximately 1,086 witnessed falls having specimens in the world's collections. In contrast, there are over 38,660 well-documented meteorite finds.
Meteorites have traditionally been divided into three broad categories: stony meteorites are rocks, mainly composed of silicate minerals; iron meteorites are largely composed of metallic iron-nickel; and, stony-iron meteorites contain large amounts of both metallic and rocky material. Modern classification schemes divide meteorites into groups according to their structure, chemical and isotopic composition and mineralogy.
Meteorites are always named for the place where they were found, usually a nearby town or geographic feature. In cases where many meteorites were found in one place, the name may be followed by a number or letter (e.g., Allan Hills 84001 or Dimmitt (b)). Some meteorites have informal nicknames: the Sylacauga meteorite is sometimes called the "Hodges meteorite" after Ann Hodges, the woman who was struck by it; the Canyon Diablo meteorite, which formed Meteor Crater has dozens of these aliases. However, the single, official name designated by the Meteoritical Society is used by scientists, catalogers, and most collectors.
Most meteoroids disintegrate when entering Earth's atmosphere. However, an estimated 500 meteorites ranging in size from marbles to basketballs or larger do reach the surface each year; only 5 or 6 of these are typically recovered and made known to scientists. Few meteorites are large enough to create large impact craters. Instead, they typically arrive at the surface at their terminal velocity and, at most, create a small pit. Even so, falling meteorites have reportedly caused damage to property, and injuries to livestock and people.
Large meteoroids may strike the ground with a significant fraction of their cosmic velocity, leaving behind a hypervelocity impact crater. The kind of crater will depend on the size, composition, degree of fragmentation, and incoming angle of the impactor. The force of such collisions has the potential to cause widespread destruction. The most frequent hypervelocity cratering events on the Earth are caused by iron meteoroids, which are most easily able to transit the atmosphere intact. Examples of craters caused by iron meteoroids include Barringer Meteor Crater, Odessa Meteor Crater, Wabar craters, and Wolfe Creek crater; iron meteorites are found in association with all of these craters. In contrast, even relatively large stony or icy bodies like small comets or asteroids, up to millions of tons, are disrupted in the atmosphere, and do not make impact craters. Although such disruption events are uncommon, they can cause a considerable concussion to occur; the famed Tunguska event probably resulted from such an incident. Very large stony objects, hundreds of meters in diameter or more, weighing tens of millions of tons or more, can reach the surface and cause large craters, but are very rare. Such events are generally so energetic that the impactor is completely destroyed, leaving no meteorites. (The very first example of a stony meteorite found in association with a large impact crater, the Morokweng crater in South Africa, was reported in May 2006.)
Several phenomena are well documented during witnessed meteorite falls too small to produce hypervelocity craters. The fireball that occurs as the meteoroid passes through the atmosphere can appear to be very bright, rivaling the sun in intensity, although most are far dimmer and may not even be noticed during daytime. Various colors have been reported, including yellow, green and red. Flashes and bursts of light can occur as the object breaks up. Explosions, detonations, and rumblings are often heard during meteorite falls, which can be caused by sonic booms as well as shock waves resulting from major fragmentation events. These sounds can be heard over wide areas, up to many thousands of square km. Whistling and hissing sounds are also sometimes heard, but are poorly understood. Following passage of the fireball, it is not unusual for a dust trail to linger in the atmosphere for some time.
As meteoroids are heated during atmospheric entry, their surfaces melt and experience ablation. They can be sculpted into various shapes during this process, sometimes resulting in deep "thumb-print" like indentations on their surfaces called regmaglypts. If the meteoroid maintains a fixed orientation for some time, without tumbling, it may develop a conical "nose cone" or "heat shield" shape. As it decelerates, eventually the molten surface layer solidifies into a thin fusion crust, which on most meteorites is black (on some achondrites, the fusion crust may be very light colored). On stony meteorites, the heat-affected zone is at most a few mm deep; in iron meteorites, which are more thermally conductive, the structure of the metal may be affected by heat up to 1 cm below the surface. Meteorites are sometimes reported to be warm to the touch when they land, but they are never hot. Reports, however, vary greatly, with some meteorites being reported as "burning hot to the touch" upon landing, and others forming a frost upon their surface.
Meteoroids that experience disruption in the atmosphere may fall as meteorite showers, which can range from only a few up to thousands of separate individuals. The area over which a meteorite shower falls is known as its strewn field. Strewn fields are commonly elliptical in shape, with the major axis parallel to the direction of flight. In most cases, the largest meteorites in a shower are found farthest down-range in the strewn field.
Most meteorites are stony meteorites, classed as chondrites and achondrites. Only 6% of meteorites are iron meteorites or a blend of rock and metal, the stony-iron meteorites. Modern classification of meteorites is complex, the review paper of Krot et al. (2007) summarizes modern meteorite taxonomy.
About 86% of the meteorites that fall on Earth are chondrites, which are named for the small, round particles they contain. These particles, or chondrules, are composed mostly of silicate minerals that appear to have been melted while they were free-floating objects in space. Certain types of chondrites also contain small amounts of organic matter, including amino acids, and presolar grains. Chondrites are typically about 4.55 billion years old and are thought to represent material from the asteroid belt that never formed into large bodies. Like comets, chondritic asteroids are some of the oldest and most primitive materials in the solar system. Chondrites are often considered to be "the building blocks of the planets".
About 8% of the meteorites that fall on Earth are achondrites (meaning they do not contain chondrules), some of which are similar to terrestrial mafic igneous rocks. Most achondrites are also ancient rocks, and are thought to represent crustal material of asteroids. One large family of achondrites (the HED meteorites) may have originated on the asteroid 4 Vesta. Others derive from different asteroids. Two small groups of achondrites are special, as they are younger and do not appear to come from the asteroid belt. One of these groups comes from the Moon, and includes rocks similar to those brought back to Earth by Apollo and Luna programs. The other group is almost certainly from Mars and are the only materials from other planets ever recovered by man.
About 5% of meteorites that fall are iron meteorites with intergrowths of iron-nickel alloys, such as kamacite and taenite. Most iron meteorites are thought to come from the core of a number of asteroids that were once molten. As on Earth, the denser metal separated from silicate material and sank toward the center of the asteroid, forming a core. After the asteroid solidified, it broke up in a collision with another asteroid. Due to the low abundance of irons in collection areas such as Antarctica, where most of the meteoric material that has fallen can be recovered, it is possible that the actual percentage of iron-meteorite falls is lower than 5%.
Stony-iron meteorites constitute the remaining 1%. They are a mixture of iron-nickel metal and silicate minerals. One type, called pallasites, is thought to have originated in the boundary zone above the core regions where iron meteorites originated. The other major type of stony-iron meteorites is the mesosiderites.
Tektites (from Greek tektos, molten) are not themselves meteorites, but are rather natural glass objects up to a few centimeters in size which were formed—according to most scientists—by the impacts of large meteorites on Earth's surface. A few researchers have favored Tektites originating from the Moon as volcanic ejecta, but this theory has lost much of its support over the last few decades.
Most meteorite falls are recovered on the basis of eye-witness accounts of the fireball or the actual impact of the object on the ground, or both. Therefore, despite the fact that meteorites actually fall with virtually equal probability everywhere on Earth, verified meteorite falls tend to be concentrated in areas with high human population densities such as Europe, Japan, and northern India.
A small number of meteorite falls have been observed with automated cameras and recovered following calculation of the impact point. The first of these was the Příbram meteorite, which fell in Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic) in 1959. In this case, two cameras used to photograph meteors captured images of the fireball. The images were used both to determine the location of the stones on the ground and, more significantly, to calculate for the first time an accurate orbit for a recovered meteorite.
Following the Pribram fall, other nations established automated observing programs aimed at studying infalling meteorites. One of these was the Prairie Network, operated by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory from 1963 to 1975 in the midwestern US. This program also observed a meteorite fall, the Lost City chondrite, allowing its recovery and a calculation of its orbit. Another program in Canada, the Meteorite Observation and Recovery Project, ran from 1971 to 1985. It too recovered a single meteorite, Innisfree, in 1977. Finally, observations by the European Fireball Network, a descendant of the original Czech program that recovered Pribram, led to the discovery and orbit calculations for the Neuschwanstein meteorite in 2002.
A few meteorites were found in Antarctica between 1912 and 1964. In 1969, the 10th Japanese Antarctic Research Expedition found nine meteorites on a blue ice field near the Yamato Mountains. With this discovery, came the realization that movement of ice sheets might act to concentrate meteorites in certain areas. After a dozen other specimens were found in the same place in 1973, a Japanese expedition was launched in 1974 dedicated to the search for meteorites. This team recovered nearly 700 meteorites.
Shortly thereafter, the United States began its own program to search for Antarctic meteorites, operating along the Transantarctic Mountains on the other side of the continent: the ANtarctic Search for METeorites (ANSMET) program. European teams, starting with a consortium called "EUROMET" in the late 1980s, and continuing with a program by the Italian Programma Nazionale di Ricerche in Antartide have also conducted systematic searches for Antarctic meteorites.
The Antarctic Scientific Exploration of China has conducted successful meteorite searches since 2000. A Korean program (KOREAMET) was launched in 2007 and has collected a few meteorites. The combined efforts of all of these expeditions have produced more than 23,000 classified meteorite specimens since 1974, with thousands more that have not yet been classified. For more information see the article by Harvey (2003).
At about the same time as meteorite concentrations were being discovered in the cold desert of Antarctica, collectors discovered that many meteorites could also be found in the hot deserts of Australia. Several dozen meteorites had already been found in the Nullarbor region of Western and South Australia. Systematic searches between about 1971 and the present recovered over 500 more, ~300 of which are currently well characterized. The meteorites can be found in this region because the land presents a flat, featureless, plain covered by limestone. In the extremely arid climate, there has been relatively little weathering or sedimentation on the surface for tens of thousands of years, allowing meteorites to accumulate without being buried or destroyed. The dark colored meteorites can then be recognized among the very different looking limestone pebbles and rocks.
In 1999, meteorite hunters discovered that the desert in southern and central Oman were also favorable for the collection of many specimens. The gravel plains in the Dhofar and Al Wusta regions of Oman, south of the sandy deserts of the Rub' al Khali, had yielded about 5,000 meteorites as of mid-2009. Included among these are a large number of lunar and Martian meteorites, making Oman a particularly important area both for scientists and collectors. Early expeditions to Oman were mainly done by commercial meteorite dealers, however international teams of Omani and European scientists have also now collected specimens.
The recovery of meteorites from Oman is currently prohibited by national law, but a number of international hunters continue to remove specimens now deemed "national treasures." This new law provoked a small international incident, as its implementation actually preceded any public notification of such a law, resulting in the prolonged imprisonment of a large group of meteorite hunters primarily from Russia, but whose party also consisted of members from the U.S. as well as several other European countries.
Beginning in the mid-1990s, amateur meteorite hunters began scouring the arid areas of the southwestern United States. To date, meteorites numbering possibly into the thousands have been recovered from the Mojave, Sonoran, Great Basin, and Chihuahuan Deserts, with many being recovered on dry lake beds. Significant finds include the Superior Valley 014 Acapulcoite, one of two of its type found within the United States as well as the Blue Eagle meteorite, the first Rumuruti-type chondrite yet found in the Americas. Perhaps the most notable find in recent years has been the Los Angeles meteorite, a martian meteorite that was reportedly found by Robert Verish. A number of finds from the American Southwest have yet to be formally submitted to the Meteorite Nomenclature Committee, as many finders think it is unwise to publicly state the coordinates of their discoveries for fear of confiscation by the federal government, and of 'poaching' by other hunters at known find sites. Several of the meteorites found recently are currently on display in the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles.
In the 1970s a stone meteorite was uncovered during an archaeological dig at Danebury Iron Age hillfort, Danebury England. It was found deposited part way down in an Iron Age pit. Since it must have been deliberately placed there, this could indicate one of the first (known) human finds of a meteorite in Europe.
Some Native Americans treated meteorites as ceremonial objects. In 1915, a 135-pound iron meteorite was found in a Sinagua (c.1100-1200 AD) burial cyst near Camp Verde, Arizona, respectfully wrapped in a feather cloth. A small pallasite was found in a pottery jar in an old burial found at Pojoaque Pueblo, New Mexico. Nininger reports several other such instances, in the Southwest US and elsewhere, such as the discovery of Native American beads of meteoric iron found in Hopewell burial mounds, and the discovery of the Winona meteorite in a Native American stone-walled crypt.
Indigenous peoples often prized iron-nickel meteorites as an easy, if limited, source of iron metal. For example, the Inuit used chips of the Cape York meteorite to form cutting edges for tools and spear tips.
The German physicist, Ernst Florens Chladni, was the first to publish the then audacious idea that that meteorites were actually rocks from space. He published his booklet, "On the Origin of the Pallas Iron and Others Similar to it, and on Some Associated Natural Phenomena", in 1794. In this he compiled all available data on several meteorite finds and falls concluded that they must have their origins in outer space. The scientific community of the time responded with resistance and mockery. It took nearly 10 years before a general acceptance of the origin of meteorites was achieved through the work of the French scientist Jean-Baptiste Biot and the British chemist, Edward Howard. Biot's study, initiated by the French Academy of Sciences, was compelled by a meteorite fall of thousands of meteorites on April 26, 1803 from the skies of L'Aigle, France.
One of the leading theories for the cause of the Cretaceous–Tertiary extinction event that included the dinosaurs is a large meteorite impact. The Chicxulub Crater has been identified as the site of this impact. There has been a lively scientific debate as to whether other major extinctions, including the ones at the end of the Permian and Triassic periods might also have been the result of large impact events, but the evidence is much less compelling than for the end Cretaceous extinction.
There are several reported instances of falling meteorites having killed both people and livestock, but a few of these appear more credible than others. The most infamous reported fatality from a meteorite impact is that of an Egyptian dog that was killed in 1911, although this report is highly disputed. This particular meteorite fall was identified in the 1980s as Martian in origin. However, there is substantial evidence that the meteorite known as Valera hit and killed a cow upon impact, nearly dividing the animal in two, and similar unsubstantiated reports of a horse being struck and killed by a stone of the New Concord fall also abound. Throughout history, many first and second-hand reports of meteorites falling on and killing both humans and other animals abound, but none have been well documented.
The first known modern case of a human hit by a space rock occurred on 30 November 1954 in Sylacauga, Alabama. There a 4 kg stone chondrite crashed through a roof and hit Ann Hodges in her living room after it bounced off her radio. She was badly bruised. The Hodges meteorite, or Sylacauga meteorite, is currently on exhibit at the Alabama Museum of Natural History.
Other than the Sylacauga event, the most plausible of these claims was put forth by a young boy who stated that he had been hit by a small (~3 gram) stone of the Mbale meteorite fall from Uganda, and who stood to gain nothing from this assertion. The stone reportedly fell through a number of banana leaves before striking the boy on the head, causing little to no pain, as it was small enough to have been slowed by both friction with the atmosphere as well as that with banana leaves, before striking the boy. Although it is impossible to prove this claim either way, it seems as though he had little reason to lie about such an event occurring.
Several persons have since claimed to have been struck by "meteorites" but no verifiable meteorites have resulted.
Meteorite falls may also be the source of cultish worship. The cult in the Temple of Artemis (Diana) at Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World possibly originated with the observation of a meteorite fall which was understood by contemporaries to have fallen to the earth from Zeus, the principal Greek deity.