Asteroids and Meteorites


Between Mars and Jupiter there is a belt of rocks.

Is this a planet that didn't form?

Maybe so. Jupiter's gravity may have been too much of a disturbance.

But it would have been a little planet. Astronomers estimate total mass of the rocks to be about 0.0005 Mearth.

Here is one of the larger asteroids, named Ida. It has a little moon, Dactyl:


From time to time, a rock falls from space and hits the earth. Such rocks are called meteorites. Astronomers distinguish between a meteorite and the same thing that has not collided with Earth, calling the latter a meteoroid.

When a meteoroide falls to earth, it heats up in the atmosphere and leaves a trail of glowing molten rock. We see that and call it a meteor. Small rocks are simply destroyed by the atmosphere and never hit the earth. But some bigger ones do.

A big meteorite can make a crater. For instance, there is a meteorite crater in Arizona. Of course, we know that this sort of thing can happen at other places besides the earth.

We also know that there are a lot fewer meteoroids around than there used to be: recall that most of the damage to the moon was done in the first half billion years, so that the maria are relatively crater free. This suggests that of the rocks that were originally in orbits that intersect with Earth's orbit, most have had their orbits perturbed so that they crashed into the sun or they have been swept up by Earth (or maybe by Mercury, Venus, or Mars).

But if that is right, where are the present meteorites coming from? The obvious theory is that most are coming from the asteroid belt.

There are some other sources:

What can we learn from meteorites?

Meteorites offer clues about the formation of the solar system.

Some have been part of large bodies planets or moons. This is especially true of ``iron meteorites'' which are made of iron and nickel. Material that was in the original solar system must have been collected into a big body and melted. Then the iron and nickel could settle in the middle and the lighter rocks could float on the outside. That way you could get iron rocks if the large body were smashed in a collision.

Some are much more primitive. That is, they appear to have been made of rock that condensed from the original solar nebula and was not processed by being part of a large moon or planet. (Nevertheless they appear to have been processed to some extent in asteroids.)

We can learn:

Among the most interesting meteorites are the condrites. Many of these contain condrules, which are small round rocks. One condrule will typically have a different composition from another. Their structure suggest that they condensed quite quickly (~ an hour) as their material cooled. We can see them because the meteriod as a whole did not get melted and everything mixed together.

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Davison E. Soper, Institute of Theoretical Science, University of Oregon, Eugene OR 97403 USA