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Meteoroids, Meteors and Meteorites

Last week a mysterious fireball was seen streaking across the skies of north central Texas. It also generated a sonic boom. Originally it was believed that the fireball might be debris from two communication satellites that had collided in space earlier in the week. It was later determined that the fireball was in fact a meteor.

Was it a meteoroid, a meteor or a meteorite? Was it metallic or non-metallic? There are lots of things to learn about this fireball.

Actually it was a meteoroid, a.meteor and a meteorite. All three can describe the same “piece of rock,” it just depends on where it is. If it is traveling around in our solar system a long way from Earth, it is a meteoroid. The fireball flashing across the sky was a meteor. That is what our piece of rock becomes when it enter Earth’s stratosphere. When debris from the fireball landed on Earth, it became a meteorite.

Non-metallic meteors are the most common but they are more porous and tend to burn up in the atmosphere before reaching the surface of the Earth. The meteor over Texas was the metallic type. With the aid of a local farmer two astronomers from the University of North Texas located two pecan size pieces of the meteorite near West, Texas. This is between The Dallas/ Fort Worth area and Waco. According to Ron DiLulio, one of the U.S. astronomers, the meteoritic pieces they discovered were described as: “It's black like charcoal. Underneath this crust the color of the rock is concrete like gray.” [ABC News/Associated Press: "Texas Astronomers Say They Found Remains of Meteor."] DiLulio added, "The pieces that we found have beautiful ablation crust," which describes how the meteors form a crust by the extreme temperatures of entering the Earth’s atmosphere.”

Based on the size and material of the pieces that have been found, estimates on the size of the meteor make it about the size of a basketball. The brightness of the fireball was probably caused by the meteor breaking up into numerous pieces.

This meteor was seen during the daylight hours. If you are planning a camping trip and want to have the best opportunity to see meteor showers at night, when is the best time to plan your campout? The best time to see a lot of meteors is August 12 to 13. This is the Perseids shower with as many as 60 per hour. For brightness try July 29 to 30. This is the Capricornids shower. While often only about 15 per hour, these showers often produce brilliant fireballs.

There is a lot of excitement in the night sky. Try to arrange a campout or a night of stargazing to coincide with one of these events.


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