Meteoroids, which are solid pieces of extraterrestrial metal or rock debris, can be knocked out of their orbits in outer space and be captured by Earth's gravity. Most come from the asteroid belt lying between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, about 400 million kilometres from the Sun. Bodies within this belt range from dust particles up to small planetoids (asteroids) such as Vesta (525 km in diameter). Rarely, meteoroids may come from the Moon, Mars or comets.
What is the main difference between meteors and meteorites?
- meteors: the initial solid particle (meteoroid) can be too small to survive its flight through Earth's atmosphere and burns up completely when heated by friction with air, to give a momentary streak of light
- meteorites: larger meteoroids survive their fiery ordeal and land on the Earth's surface. Very small meteoroids may remain intact or melt to form glassy droplets which rain down on Earth's surface as micrometeorites. Tiny dust particles get rid of heat as quickly as it is applied, so do not burn up and fall gently on the Earth's surface.
The small particles which become meteors typically range from the size of a grain of sand up to the size of a pea. When heated to incandescence by friction with air in our atmosphere, they burn up completely at heights of about 80 km - 130 km. The trail of glowing, electrically-charged gases that surrounds and streams away from the meteoroid is called a meteor. These brief, bright streaks of light are sometimes called 'shooting stars'. Meteors tend to arrive in 'showers' of many individual meteors at definite times throughout the year. They are given the name of the constellation which forms their backdrop (e.g. the Leonids from Leo, November 14 - 17). These constellations are much further away than the showers themselves.
Meteoroids that survive their journey through our atmosphere land on the Earth's surface as meteorites. They sometimes break up into several pieces while still in flight or when they hit the Earth. Large meteoroids can form brightly glowing fireballs (bolides) seen clearly in daylight, accompanied by spectacular light and sound effects. They can travel at very high speeds, typically from about 5 km - 70 km per second, the fastest ones (over 30 km per second) can be destroyed on impact with the atmosphere. Most are heated for less than 10 seconds while they fall. Meteorites range in size from pea-sized pieces up to large masses many tonnes in weight.
Meteorites which are found after their fireball was witnessed are called 'falls', but if found accidentally long after their arrival they are called 'finds'. A famous Australian meteorite fall occurred on 28 September 1969 at Murchison, near Shepparton, Victoria. Meteorites are named after the locality where they have fallen (town, county, property, river, valley, mountain etc.).
About 500 tonnes of meteoritic debris falls to Earth every day, much of it as fine cosmic dust and micrometeorites that fall into the sea. About 500 meteorites of reasonable size would hit the Earth's surface every year, of which 150 would fall on dry land, and less than 10 would actually be found. Many fall in rugged, inaccessible landscapes and have a poor chance of being located. The largest known meteorite weighs about 60 tonnes and still sits where it fell, at Hoba, Namibia.
Meteorites are extremely important to science, as they help us to better understand the origins and composition of the Solar System. They are our major source of extraterrestrial material apart from moon rocks retrieved by space missions.
Large meteorites have enough energy to make an impact crater when they hit the Earth, and pieces of meteorite may be scattered around and within the crater. There are about 190 proven and possible meteorite impact structures scattered throughout the world. The Canon Diablo ('Devil's Canyon') crater in Arizona, USA, has a 1.5 km diameter and is 170 m deep. The meteorite which made this crater may have been 30,000 to 100,000 tonnes, and an estimated 10 m - 25 m in diameter. Sometimes a meteorite is a large one, travelling very fast, and with a large amount of energy. Such meteorites may explode and vaporise before hitting the ground, and the shock wave will excavate a crater and partially melt surrounding rocks or give them shock deformation structures.
Types of meteorites
Depending on how much metal or stony silicate material is present, meteorites can be irons, stony-irons, or stones. These may represent the centre (irons), inner (stony-irons) and outer parts (stone) of small planetary bodies which collided and broke up in the asteroid belt, or material that failed to clump together under gravity to make planetary bodies when the Solar System first formed.
The minerals which make up the bulk of meteorite composition include seven common Earth minerals or mineral groups and two found only in meteorites:
- olivine - magnesium iron silicate
- pyroxene (hypersthene, bronzite) - iron magnesium silicate
- plagioclase feldspar - calcium sodium aluminium silicate
- magnetite - iron oxide
- hematite - iron oxide
- troilite - iron sulphide
- serpentine - magnesium iron silicate with water
Common minerals found only in meteorites
- taenite - nickel-iron (high nickel)
- kamacite - nickel-iron (low nickel)
- schreibersite - iron nickel phosphide was first found only in meteorites but has now also been found on Earth.
Small amounts of other Earth minerals can be present in meteorites, but over 20 minor minerals occur only in meteorites and not on Earth. Altogether, about 295 different minerals have been found in meteorites.
Stones are the most common type of meteorite and can be of moderately large mass such as the 0.5 tonne stone from Wildara, Western Australia. They consist mainly of the silicate minerals olivine and pyroxene with feldspar and scattered nickel-iron.
Stones are further subdivided according to whether small, spherical, concretionary mineral structures (chondrules) are present (chondrites) or absent (achondrites). Most stones are chondrites, of which there is an unusual type, the carbonaceous chondrites (e.g. the 'Murchison', Victoria) which have enormous scientific and popular interest because of their strange bituminous smell, high organic content and amino acid-like chemicals. Rare classes of achondrite stones (e.g. the Shergottites) are basalt lavas thought to have come from Mars.
Irons are the second most common type of meteorite and have the largest masses, such as the 12 tonne 'Mundrabilla', Western Australia iron. Irons are made of dense silvery nickel-iron metal alloys (taenite and kamacite) and have a range of nickel contents from about 4% (Hexahedrite Class) to 6 - 12% (Octahedrite Class) to over 20% (Ataxite Class). When cut, polished and etched with an acid/alcohol solution, some (the Octahedrite Class) show a characteristic criss-cross pattern of intersecting platy nickel-iron crystals known as Widmanstatten structure.
Stony-irons are the least common type of meteorite. One type (Pallasite Class) has about equal amounts of the silicate mineral olivine, and nickel-iron metal (green glassy olivine crystals set in a continuous meshwork of silvery nickel-iron), while another type (Mesosiderite Class) is a broken up (brecciated) mixture of pyroxene with nickel-iron. A well-known New South Wales example of a Pallasite is the 'Molong' stony-iron.
Meteorites have a brown, black or grey outer fusion crust of magnetite and hematite, but inside they look quite different. The interiors of irons show bright silvery metal, and stones show speckled cream, brown or grey silicate grains with scattered metal specks and veins.
Stony-irons show a silvery metal meshwork enclosing glassy green olivine (Pallasites) or brown pyroxene (Mesosiderites).
Stony meteorites usually have 'boxy' shapes with small, rounded hollows like thumb prints on their outer surfaces and rounded corners and edges.
Irons and stony-irons can have regular, smoothed shapes, but can also be twisted 'shrapnel' shapes if they have been broken up and deformed.
Irons are very heavy - a 10 cm cube of an iron would weigh about 7.5 kg to 7.8 kg, and a similar cube of a stony-iron would weigh between 4 kg - 6 kg. Stones (chondrites) are brittle and less heavy - a 10 cm cube would weigh between 3 kg and 4 kg, while carbonaceous chondrites (black and crumbly, often smelling like bitumen or camphor), would weigh between 2.2 kg and 3.5 kg. Achondrite stones are brittle, may have a shiny black fusion crust, and have a pale grey or cream interior with little or no metal. A 10 cm cube of an achondrite would weigh about 3.0 kg - 3.5 kg. Irons and stony-irons are strongly attracted to a magnet, while chondrite stones are attracted weakly and achondrites are almost non-magnetic.
Some large meteorites
Meteorites vary from small pebbles to single objects or groups of many tonnes. The world's largest single iron meteorites are the 60 tonne 'Hoba' from Namibia, Africa, and a 36 tonne mass from the Cape York, Greenland. The largest falls of stones are the 'Allende', Mexico carbonaceous chondrite (over 2 tonnes of pieces) and the 'Norton County', USA achondrite (over 1 tonne of pieces). The world's largest single stony-iron is the 'Huckitta' Northern Territory pallasite (1.4 tonnes).
The largest Australian meteorites are:
- Mundrabilla, Western Australia, iron (octahedrite) 12 t, 5 t
- Cranbourne, Victoria, iron (octahedrite) 8.5 t (incl. single 3.5 t, 1.5 t)
- Youndegin, Western Australia, iron (octahedrite) 3.7 t (incl. separate 2.6 t)
- Wildara, Western Australia, stone (chondrite) 0.5 t of fragments
- Huckitta, Northern Territory, stony-iron (pallasite) 1.4 t
- The largest New South Wales meteorites are:
- Barratta, Deniliquin, stone (chondrite) 203 kg of pieces
- Molong, Orange, stony-iron (pallasite) 105 kg
- Narraburra, Temora, iron (octahedrite) 32 kg
Other large Australian meteorites are:
- Murnpeowie, South Australia, iron 1.1 t
- Henbury, Northern Territory, iron (octahedrite) over 1 t of pieces
- Haig, Western Australia, iron (octahedrite) 0.526 t
- Dalgety Downs, Western Australia, stone (chondrite) 0.474 t of pieces
- Murchison, Victoria, stone (carbonaceous chondrite) over 0.1 t of pieces
There were 66,132 named and confirmed meteorite falls and finds and 7,559 provisional meteorite names up to September 2021, 756 being from Australia. These are listed in the worldwide Meteoritical Bulletin Database of the Meteoritical Society.
Other objects can often be mistaken for meteorites - ironstones and other heavy rocks and minerals; melted materials (slag, coke) from metal smelting and manufacture of glass, bricks and coke; ball bearings and manufactured metal alloys. Always take any suspected meteorite to your nearest museum for identification and comparison with known meteorites. New meteorites, previously unknown to science, have been discovered in this way.
- Hoba, Namibia 60 t
- Cape York, Greenland 36.5 t, 20,1 t
- Bacubirito, Mexico 27 t
- Mbosi, Tanzania 25 - 27 t
- Armanty, Outer Mongolia 20 t
- Willamette, Oregon, USA 14 t
- Chupaderos, Mexico 14 t, 7 t
- Campo Del Cielo, Argentina 14 t
- Mundrabilla, Western Australia 12 t, 5 t
- Morito, Mexico 11 t
- Bendego, Brazil 5 t
- Youndegin, Western Australia 3.7 t, separate 2.6 t
- Cranbourne, Victoria, Australia 3.5 t, 1.5 t
- Ardagas, Mexico 3 t
- Santa Catharina, Brazil 2 t, 1.5 t
- Chico Mountains, Texas, USA 2 t
- Sikhot-Alin, CIS 1.7 t
- Casa Grandes, Mexico 1.5 t
- Navajo, USA 1.5 t
- Magura, Czech Republic 1.5 t
- Quinn Canyon, Nevada, USA 1.4 t
- Santa Appolonia, Mexico 1.3 t
- Kouga Mountains, South Africa 1.2 t
- Goose Lake, California, USA 1.2 t
- Murnpeowie, South Australia 1.1 t
- Zacatecas, Mexico 1 t
- Allende, Mexico (Carbonaceous Chondrite) 1 - 2 t of pieces
- Norton County, Kansas, USA (Enstatite Achondrite) 1 t
- Murchison, Victoria, Australia (Carbonaceous Chondrite) > 0.1 t of pieces
- Wildara, Western Australia (Olivine-Bronzite Chondrite) 0.5 t
- Huckitta, Northern Territory, Australia (Pallasite) 1.4 t
Biggest Australian Impact Craters (diameter)
- Woodleigh, Western Australia 120 km
- Lake Acraman, South Australia 90 km
- Tookoonooka, Queensland 55 km
- Fiery Creek Dome, Queensland 30 km
- Shoemaker (Teague Ring), Western Australia 30 km
- Talundily, Queensland 30 km
- Strangways, Northern Territory 26 km
- Gosses Bluff, Northern Territory 24 km
- Lawn Hill, Queensland 20 km
- Spider, Western Australia 13 km
- Yallalie Basin, Western Australia 13 km
- Kelly West, Northern Territory 10-20 km
- Connolly Basin, Western Australia 9 km
- Goyder, Northern Territory 7.25 km
- Piccaniny, Western Australia 7 km
- Goat Paddock, Western Australia 5.1 km
- Mt. Toondina, South Australia 4 km
- Liverpool, Northern Territory 3 km
- Mt. Darwin Crater, Tasmania 1 km
- Wolfe Creek, Western Australia 0.88 km
- Henbury, Northern Territory 0.18 km (biggest of 13 craters)
- Boxhole, Northern Territory 0.17 km
- Veevers, Western Australia 0.07 km
- Snelling, Western Australia 0.029 km
- Dalgaranga, Western Australia 0.024 km
Biggest impact craters outside Australia (diameter)
- Vredefort, South Africa 300 km
- Sudbury, Canada 250 km
- Chicxulub, Mexico 180 km
- Manicouagan, Canada 100 km
- Popigai, Russia 100 km
- Morokweng, South Kalahari, South Africa 70 km
Some well-known smaller craters (diameter)
- Ries, Bavaria, Germany 22.5 km
- Bosumtwi, Ghana 13 km
- New Quebec, Canada 3.2 km
- Talemzane, Algeria 3.2 km
- Lonar Lake, India 1.6 km
- Canon Diablo, Arizona, USA 1.6 km
A rare group of stony meteorites (313 are known up to September 2021) may have come from the planet Mars. Most of these have been found in Antarctica.
They were originally named 'SNC's', after the names of the three meteorite subgroups into which they were first classified: Shergotty (S), Nakhla (N) and Chassigny (C). However, a new subgroup of orthopyroxene-rich Martian meteorites (Martian OPX) was recognised when a meteorite from the Allan Hills in Antarctica (ALH 84001) was also found to be from Mars.
All Martian meteorites are igneous rocks, having solidified at or below Mars surface. This makes them difficult to distinguish from many similar rocks on Earth. However there are several pieces of evidence that point to an origin on Mars.
Evidence for a Martian origin
It is believed that all Martian meteorites landed on Earth as fragments resulting from impacts of large meteorites or asteroids that crashed into Mars between 180 and 1300 million years ago.
The meteorites are most likely to have come from the planet Mars because:
- The meteorites are relatively young in age (< 1300 million years) compared to the Solar System and other meteorites (~ 4500 million years), but two have ages > 1400 million years.
- The mineral grains within them have a different oxygen isotopic composition compared to the Earth and Moon.
Trapped pockets of gases within at least one of the Martian meteorites have the same chemical and isotopic composition as those of the Martian atmosphere sampled by the Viking landers of 1976.
- All Martian meteorites are formed from igneous rocks, so they must have formed on an earth-like planet or one of its moons. Venus and Mars are the only other likely candidates. Since the atmosphere on the planet Venus is very dense, it causes any ejected rock produced by impact to melt and vaporise due to frictional heating. This means that the planet Mars is left as the most likely origin of ejected meteorite fragments.
The Dar al Gani 476 meteorite
A Martian meteorite called 'Dar al Gani 476' was found in the Libyan Desert on May 1 st, 1998. It gained notoriety when ancient bacteria was identified in the meteorite but was later disproved. It is an achondrite (shergottite) stony meteorite, mainly composed of the minerals olivine and plagioclase, and is believed to have originated as a basalt on the planet Mars. The total known weight of this meteorite is 2.015 kg, but the specimen shown here weighs only 0.358 grams and has dimensions of 1.5 cm x 1.5 cm x 0.2 cm.
- Bagnall, P.M., 1991. The meteorite & tektite collector's handbook. Willmann-Bell Inc. Richmond, Virginia USA.
- Bevan, A.W.R., 1992. Australian Meteorites, in R.O. Chalmers, Commemorative Papers (Mineralogy, Meteoritics, Geology), ed. Lin Sutherland, Records of the Australian Museum Supplement 15, 16 October 1992, pp 1-28.
- Bevan, A. and De Laeter, J., 2002, Meteorites - A journey through space and time. University of New South Wales Press.
- Dodd, R.T., 1981. Meteorites: a chemical-petrologic synthesis. Cambridge University Press.
- Graham, A.L., Bevan, A.W.R., and Hutchison, R., 1985. Catalogue of Meteorites. 4th ed. British Museum (Natural History).
- Hutchison, R., 1983. The search for our beginning. British Museum of Natural History, Oxford University Press.
- McCall, G.1., 1973. Meteorites and their origins. Wren Publishing Pty Ltd.
- Moss, A.A., 1967. Meteorites. British Museum (Natural History).
- Wasson, I.T., 1974. Meteorites - classification and properties. Springer-Verlag, Minerals and Rocks 10.