What’s the Difference Between Comets, Asteroids, Meteoroids, Meteors and Meteorites?

We love making wishes on bright streaks, jetting across our night sky. Not to mention, we sit out in our lawns with a mug of hot cocoa, waiting for a beautiful shower. However, most of us do not know what makes each of these night sky wonders different from one another. What’s the difference between comets, asteroids, meteoroids, meteors and meteorites?

Simply put, the key difference are:

  • Comets are big rocks, covered in ice, with a tail
  • Asteroids are comets without the ice or tail
  • Meteoroids are simply small pieces of rocky space debris
  • Meteors are meteoroids that hit Earth’s atmosphere and burn up
  • Meteorites are meteoroids that successfully pass through the atmosphere and hit Earth’s surface

Simple, right? Now, here are the more in-depth answers for you knowledge seekers!

 

Comet:

what is a comet

Over 4-billion years ago, comets were born along side our solar system. Typically, they are relatively small and originate from the outer reaches of our solar system. In fact, trillions of comets currently exist in a doughnut-shaped region beyond Neptune, known as the Kuiper Belt, which Astronimate explains here!

Currently, comets orbit our Sun, much like planets. Composed of dust, rock and metal, comets are quite similar to some planets.

However, a thick shell of frozen materials, like ammonia or water covers comets. Therefore, when they get near our Sun, this icy shell begins to sublimate. As a result, the comet now has a fuzzy, halo-like glow around it, known as a coma.

Ultimately, when traveling towards the Sun, comets face strong head-on solar winds. Because of this, the fuzzy coma is blown back, causing the infamous tail that we all recognize!

Comets also have highly elliptical (oblong circle) orbits. As a result, a comet’s orbit can take them extremely far out before returning again. In fact, some comets travel nearly out of our solar system before they return again!

Comet’s crazy orbits allow them to be classified into two groups. They are either classified as short-period or long-period comets, depending on whether or not their orbits are 200 years or greater.

Asteroid:

what is an asteroid

Next, we have asteroids, which are very similar to comets. However, while asteroids are also made of rocky and metallic material, they lack the comet’s icy shell. Therefore, they also do not have the comet’s infamous coma, or tail.

Much like comets, asteroids were also formed around the time the solar system was born, nearly 5-billion years ago. However, asteroids formed much closer in, towards the Sun. Thus, heat left icy materials unable to exist.

Currently, most asteroids exist between Mars and Jupiter, in a region appropriately called the Asteroid Belt. Occasionally, asteroids get jostled towards Earth. though, this is fortunately rare!

Meteoroid:

what is a meteoroid

Next, are meteoroids, which are tiny pieces of rocky space debris floating around our solar system.

Generally, meteoroids are larger than a dust grain, but smaller than an asteroid. However, meteoroids are typically pebble-sized.

Made of rocky and metallic materials, larger meteoroids typically originate in the Asteroid Belt, between Mars and Jupiter. However, many smaller meteoroids originate from our Moon, or even Mars!

Meteor:

what is a meteor

Next, come meteors. Over all, meteors are simply meteoroids that enter Earth’s atmosphere. And, as the meteoroid hits our atmosphere, it burns up, causing a beautiful flash of light in the sky.

Typically, we know meteors more commonly as shooting stars. Most of us have seen one of these exciting flashes blazing across the night sky.

Actually, the term “meteor” originated in ancient Greek culture. Referring to a “celestial phenomenon in the heavens above,” meteors are the bright flash of light itself. Whereas, a meteoroid refers to the actual rocky piece of space debris itself!

Although, meteors create a large bright light in the sky, they are actually the size of a grain of sand or pebble!

Meteorite:

what is a meteorite

Finally, we have meteorites. Simply put, meteorites are meteoroids that successfully pass through Earth’s atmosphere. Therefore, instead of burning up as a meteor, a meteorite actually collides with Earth’s surface.

Even though meteorites are usually very small, they can pose serious threats. Because they do not cause a flash of light, meteorites are essentially impossible to detect, allowing unexpected debris to hit our planet.

Not to mention, though very small, meteorite’s extremely fast speeds and rocky or metallic composition can make them very dangerous! Fortunately, meteorites hitting people, houses or cars are quite rare!