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When asked to describe our solar system, most people are likely to
name the Sun, the eight planets, and their satellites. Some people
may also mention asteroids (the topic of the next section) and com-
ets. An even smaller number of individuals may know that meteor-
oids
are also a part of the solar system. Meteoroids are small chunks
of matter, ranging in size from a few grams to more than 10 metric
tons, that travel around the Sun in orbits close to that of Earth. From
time to time, meteoroids come close enough to Earth to enter its
atmosphere, where they flash through the sky in brilliant streaks
of light sometimes called “shooting stars.” That name goes back
many centuries to when some observers believed that the streaks
of light were actually produced by stars traveling through Earth’s
atmosphere. Meteoroids that enter Earth’s atmosphere are correctly
known as meteors. When many meteors are seen at about the same
time in the sky, the event is known as a “shower.”
Friction heats most meteors to such high temperatures during
their transit through the atmosphere that they burn up, leaving only
fine dust to fall to Earth’s surface. A few are able to survive contact
with the atmosphere, however, and fall to Earth. These meteors are
called meteorites.

Any careful study of the skies reveals the existence of meteors. It
is no surprise, then, that records of meteors are among the earliest as-
tronomical records. Apparently the oldest written account of a meteor
shower is a Chinese document dating to 654 B.C.E. Some of the more
spectacular meteor showers, those that reappear on a regular basis,
have also been recorded and commented on for centuries. The first
record of the famous Perseid meteor shower, which now occurs annu-
ally in early August, dates to a Chinese document written in 36 C.E.,
while Chinese astronomers made the first report of the Leonid meteor
shower (now occurring each year in mid-November) in 902 C.E.

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Comets, Meteors, Asteroids, and the Moon 193

Similar accounts of meteor sightings and meteor showers can
be found in the historical records of every civilization. Along with
these accounts are a great variety of explanations as to what meteors
are made of, where they come from, and what, if any, meaning they
have. Some scholars argued that meteors were rocks expelled from
volcanoes on the Moon or from volcanoes here on Earth, pieces of
rock tossed off the Moon’s surface, aggregates of smaller particles
floating about in the atmosphere, or rocky materials fallen to Earth
from some source beyond the solar system. Like comets, meteors
were considered portents. In some cultures, they were thought to be
gifts showered on Earth by gods, goddesses, angels, or other super-
natural beings. In other cultures, they were regarded as a form of
punishment, signs of anger by deities and their agents.
An important turning point in the study of meteorites occurred
on April 26, 1803, when a shower of about 2,000 meteorites fell near
the town of L’Aigle in France. The event was documented and re-
ported by the French physicist Jean Baptiste Biot (1774–1862). Biot’s
careful description of the meteorite event convinced scientists that
meteorites were not of terrestrial origin but truly did originate from
interplanetary space. Scientists soon appreciated the enormous sig-
nificance of this fact, because it provided the first direct evidence
that humans had of the nature of materials contained in the solar
system outside our own planet.
Still, it was not until three decades later that the study of mete-
ors gained full scientific status. The event that brought about the
birth of meteoritics, the scientific study of meteors, was the great
Leonid meteor shower of November 12 and 13, 1833. While analyzing
their observations of this shower, astronomers Dennison Olmsted
and A. C. Twining concluded that the meteors that made up the
shower all appeared to have come from a single point in the sky
and were, therefore, components of a single mass of bodies in the
interplanetary space. Some time later, in 1863, Yale astronomer and
mathematician Hubert Anson Newton (1830–96) calculated the or-
bit of the Leonid meteors, finding that their orbital period was 33
years. He confirmed the appearances of the shower as far back as its
first recorded sighting in 902 C.E. and predicted its reappearance in
1866—a prediction that was confirmed.

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194 CHEMISTRY OF SPACE

Meteorites are generally classified into two categories: falls and
finds. A meteoritic fall occurs when an observer actually sees a me-
teorite fall to Earth and is able to track and recover the meteorite.
The term meteoritic find is used to describe a meteorite that has
been found on Earth’s surface, although there is no evidence as to
when it fell to Earth. In one summary of meteorites, reported in The
Handbook of Iron Meteorites,
55 percent of all discoveries were falls
and 45 percent finds.
Over the years, scientists have developed a very detailed and
somewhat complex system for the classification of meteorites. It is
based on the chemical composition and (to a somewhat lesser de-
gree) the physical characteristics of meteorites. The chart below
summarizes the main elements of the system.

CLASSIFICATION OF METEORITES

STONY

IRON

STONY-
IRON

Chondrites

Achondrites

Hexahedrites

Pallasites

Enstatite (E)

Octahedrites

Mesosiderites

Ordinary
Chondrites:
H Chondrites
L Chondrites
LL Chondrites

Howardites:
Eucrites
Diogenites
Shergottites:

Ataxites

Carbonaceous
Chondrites

Nakhlites

Kakangari-type

Ureilites

Rumurutiites

Aubrites

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Comets, Meteors, Asteroids, and the Moon 195

Notice that meteorites are classified first of all into three large

categories: stony, iron, and stony-iron. As their name suggests, stony

meteorites are similar in appearance and chemical composition to

rocks found on the Earth’s surface. Stony meteorites are divided

into two major categories: chondrites and achondrites. Chondrites

are stony meteorites that contain small spheres, called chondrules,

with diameters of about 1 mm, consisting of minerals that were once

melted and that have now aggregated to form the meteorite. Stony

meteorites lacking chondrules are called achondrites.

Chondrites are, in turn, divided into five major categories accord-

ing to their chemical composition. Enstatite chondrites are those

rich in the mineral of the same name, a form of magnesium silicate,

Mg

2Si

2O

6. Enstatite chondrites are further classified into 13 sub-
groups according to the amount of iron present and the appearance

of chondrules. An EH3 meteorite, for example, is an enstatite (E)

chondrite with a high (H) iron concentration and an abundance (3)

of chondrules.

Ordinary chondrites are also classified according to the amount

of iron present and the characteristics of the chondrules present.

For example, an LL7 chondrite is one with very low iron content

(about 2 percent) whose chondrules have largely melted to form a

solid mass.

Carbonaceous chondrites are so named because they contain

the element carbon in one form or another. Their names include

symbols to indicate the presence of carbon (C), what type they are

(Ivuna, Ornans, Vigarano, or Mighei, for example), and sometimes

the degree to which they have been altered. A CV2 meteorite, for

example, is a carbonaceous chondrite of the Vigarano general type

that has undergone moderate alteration.

In some regards, carbonaceous chondrites are among the most

interesting kinds of meteorites to scientists. Such meteorites often

contain relatively large amounts of water (as much as 20 percent

by weight of the meteorite) and light hydrocarbons. This point is

significant because water and light hydrocarbons are very volatile

and tend to evaporate easily even at low temperatures. Any mete-

orite that falls to Earth with water and hydrocarbon embedded in

it must have avoided most of the changes that other bodies in the

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solar system have undergone as a result of heating by the Sun. Such
meteorites might, therefore, serve as very good models of what the
early solar system was like.
Carbonaceous chondrites are also of interest because of the fas-
cinating mix of relatively complex organic molecules they contain.
Scientists have now discovered both amino acids and nitrogen bases
in meteorites. Amino acids are the compounds of which proteins
are made, and nitrogen bases are one of the building blocks of nu-
cleic acids such as DNA and RNA. Researchers have found 92 amino
acids in just one meteorite, the Murchison meteorite that fell about
60 miles (100 km) north of Melbourne, Australia, in 1969. Of these
92 amino acids, only 19 are found on Earth. Studies of other meteor-
ites have shown that the Murchison results are not unique. In fact,
amino acids occur in a number of carbonaceous chondrites.
The potential significance of such findings is profound. If amino
acids and nitrogen bases are present in meteors, are meteors can-
didates for one of the earliest sources of life on Earth? While much
research still needs to be done on this question, it is apparent that
this possibility cannot now be ruled out.
Kakangari (K meteorites) and rumurutiite (R meteorites) are the
least common types of chondrites found on Earth.
As mentioned earlier, achondrites are stony meteorites that are
lacking in chondrules. They are very different in physical structure
and chemical composition from chondrites because they have gener-
ally undergone extensive heating, resulting in at least partial melting.
In many cases, this melting has produced a layered structure, with a
stony outer crust rich in sodium, potassium, calcium, and rare earth
metal silicates and a iron-nickel sulfide core. Achondrites are subdi-
vided into about two dozen groups, based on their chemical composi-
tion. For example, the diogenites consist almost entirely of the mineral
orthopyroxenite, while the eucrites are composed of about 60 percent
pyroxenes and 30 percent plagioclase, with smaller amounts of ilmen-
ite, chromite, apatite, and quartz. Scientists suspect that some types of
achondrites originated on the Moon or Mars and these are classified as
Moonmeteorites (the LUN group) and Marsmeteorites (SNC group).
Iron meteorites, the second large category of meteorites, are so
designated because they consist almost entirely of iron, alloyed

196 CHEMISTRY OF SPACE

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with nickel and, sometimes, other metals. The two iron-nickel alloys
most commonly found in iron meteors are kamacite, which is low in
nickel, and taenite, which is high in nickel. The iron meteorites are
classified according to either their physical structure or their chemi-
cal composition. Physically, iron meteorites are classified as hexa-
hedrites, octahedrites, and ataxites. Hexahedrites contain kamacite,
but not taenite, and have a nickel content of less than 6 percent.
Octahedrites contain both kamacite and taenite and have a nickel
content of up to 17 percent. Ataxites have nickel concentrations of
more than about 17 percent.
Although iron and nickel are by far the most common elements in
iron meteorites, other elements are often present in small amounts.
These additional elements make possible the second, chemical,
method of classifying meteorites, which consists of about 13 groups.
The IAB group of iron meteorites, for example, contains silicates,
iron sulfite, and nodules of black graphite. The IID group can be
identified by the presence of gallium and germanium, and the IC
group by the presence of gold and arsenic.
The third large category of meteorites, the stony-iron meteorites,
has traditionally been divided into two major groups, the pallasites
and the mesosiderites, again based on their chemical composition.
The pallasites consist of olivine crystals embedded in matrix of iron-
nickel alloy, while the mesosiderites have a complex structure that
includes pyroxene, plagioclase, olivine, and other minerals inter-
spersed with an iron-nickel base. Some authorities now recognize a
number of other classes of stony-iron meteorites that are different
from the pallasites and mesosiderites in the kinds and amounts of
minerals present.

Today, about a hundred discrete minerals have been identified in
various types of meteorites. The chart on pages 198–200 provides a
partial list of those minerals. In many cases, only trace amounts of
some minerals have been reported, although many others occur in
significant abundances.
One of the great questions in the science of meteoritics is the
source of meteorites. Once it was ascertained that these bodies do
not originate in the Earth or its atmosphere, the problem became
one of finding a likely source of meteorites.

Comets, Meteors, Asteroids, and the Moon 197

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MINERALS THAT HAVE BEEN
FOUND IN METEORITES

TYPE

EXAMPLE(S)

FORMULA

Metals

Copper

Cu

Kamacite

alloy of Fe and Ni (<6% Ni)

Taenite

alloy of Fe and Ni (>6% Ni)

Tetrataenite

alloy of Fe and Ni

Awaruite

Ni

3Fe

Nonmetals

Sulfur

S

8

Carbon (as graph-
ite, diamond, and
lonsdalite)

C

Oxides

Corundum

Al

2O

3

Perovskite

CaTiO

3

Scheelite

CaWO

4

Hematite

Fe

2O

3

Magnetite

Fe

3O

4

Spinel

MgAl

2O

4

Quartz, tridymite,
cristobalite

SiO

2

Baddeleyite

FeTiO

3

198 CHEMISTRY OF SPACE

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TYPE

EXAMPLE(S)

FORMULA

Sulfdes

Troilite

FeS

Marcasite, pyrite

FeS

2

Chalcopyrite

CuFeS

2

Cubanite

CuFe

2S

3

Heazlewoodite

Ni

3S

2

Oldhamite

CaS

Sphalerite

(Mg,Fe)S

Carbides

Haxonite

Fe

23S

6

Carlsbergite

CrN

Osbornite

TiN

Sinoite

Si

2N

2O

Silicates

Olivine

(Mg,Fe)

2SiO

4

Enstatite

MgSiO

3

Ferrosilite

FeSiO

3

Wollastonite

CaSiO

3

Orthoclase

KAlSi

3O

8

Ureyite

NaCrSi

2O

6

Zircon

ZrSiO

(continues)

Comets, Meteors, Asteroids, and the Moon 199

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200 CHEMISTRY OF SPACE

That source almost certainly has to be some portion of the solar
system that is physically close to Earth’s orbit. For an object to col-
lide with our atmosphere and reach the ground, it must begin its
path in the near-Earth region of space. Four obvious possibilities
exist. First is the Moon. Some observers have long suspected that
pieces of the Moon could be ejected from its surface by impact with
an asteroid, a comet, or some other body. Those pieces might then
fall into orbit around Earth and eventually reach the atmosphere as
meteors or meteorites. About 50 lunar meteorites are now known
or suspected to exist. Chemists have identified these meteorites as
lunar objects by comparing their chemical composition with that
of lunar rocks collected during the Apollo voyages to the Moon. (A
list of lunar meteorites is available online at http://epsc.wustl.edu/
admin/resources/meteorites/moon_meteorites_list.html.)
A second possible source of meteorites is the planet Mars. Although
much more distant from Earth than the Moon, Mars could be the

MINERALS THAT HAVE BEEN
FOUND IN METEORITES
(continued)

TYPE

EXAMPLE(S)

FORMULA

Halides

Lawrencite

FeCl

2

Oxysalts

Calcite, aragonite,
vaterite

CaCO

3

Apatite

Ca

5(PO

4)

3(OH,F)

Gypsum

CaSO

4·2H

2O

Bloedite

Na

2Mg(SO

4)

2·4H

2O

Source: Adapted from John S. Lewis. Physics and Chemistry of the Solar System,
revised edition. San Diego: Academic Press, 1997, Table VIII.3, page 333.

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Comets, Meteors, Asteroids, and the Moon 201

source of rocky pieces ejected during collision with another body.
About 50 meteorites have now been identified as having come from
Mars. (A list of these meteorites is available online at http://www.
jpl.nasa.gov/snc/nwa1068.html.)
A third possible source of meteorites is comets. Certainly some
comets pass close enough to Earth’s orbit for Earth’s gravitational
field to pull pieces of their comas and tails into the atmosphere,
where they could become meteors and, eventually, meteorites.
There are some convincing arguments against this explanation.
Cometary materials are more fragile and are traveling too rapidly to
be likely to survive impact with Earth’s atmosphere. Although they
could be responsible for some of the meteor trails we see, they ap-
pear to be unlikely candidates for the meteorites that actually reach
the Earth’s surface.
Nonetheless, some scientists continue to argue that at least some
meteorites originated from comets. In 1998, for example, two as-
tronomers at the University of Florida and the Lunar and Planetary
Laboratory at the University of Arizona concluded in their paper
“Are there cometary meteorites?” that there is strong theoretical
support for the existence of such meteorites; we have just not found
any of them yet. “Based on studies of cometary fireballs,” they wrote,
“we should have collected approximately the same number of com-
etary meteorites as CI [carbonaceous] chondrites. In other words,
we should be on the verge of collecting or identifying a cometary
meteorite.”

The vast majority of meteorites that have been identified thus far,
however, appear to have originated from the fourth possible near-
Earth source, the asteroids. Located in a heliocentric band between
Mars and Jupiter, the asteroids are close enough to Earth’s orbit to be
a source of meteorites; it is reasonable to expect that some of these
bodies might periodically pass close enough to Earth to fall into its
gravitational field and to enter a geocentric orbit, from which they
could eventually fall into the atmosphere. Many scientists now be-
lieve that meteorites are produced in this way and/or when a larger
body in the asteroid belt is broken apart by impact with another body
and the fragments are pulled into Earth’s orbit. The latter explana-
tion would help to account for why there are three major types of

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202 CHEMISTRY OF SPACE

meteorites: stony, iron, and stony-iron. If a large body in the asteroid
belt were demolished in an impact, pieces from the outer shell of the
body (consisting of rocky material) could become the raw material
of stony meteorites; pieces from the body’s interior (consisting of
iron and nickel) could become the raw material of iron meteorites;
and pieces from the boundary between crust and core (consisting of
a mixture of rocky and iron/nickel materials) could become the raw
material of stony-iron meteorites.

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