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Background Information on Meteorites (by Horton and Joan Newsom) A meteorite is a piece of rock or metal from outer space

that has survived its descent through the Earths atmosphere. Most meteorites are from the asteroid belt, which is between Mars and Jupiter. In contrast, a comet is a dirty snowball of ice and dust. Most comets orbit around the Sun and spend most of their time far away from the sun. Asteroids and comets are left over from the formation of the solar system 4.56 billion years ago, from a cloud of gas and dust called the solar nebula. Asteroids formed between Mars and Jupiter, but comets formed farther from the sun, where ices were stable. Scientists believe that the gravitational pull of Jupiter prevented the asteroids from combining to form a planet. A few meteorites are from the Moon and Mars, and were ejected from these planets by large impact events. The meteorites from the Moon are called lunar meteorites, and those from Mars are called Martian meteorites, or sometimes they are called by the abbreviation SNCs named after some of the meteorite types. They are very interesting because they provide information about the composition of the Moon and Mars. Small (dust to pea-sized) pieces of rock and metal that enter the atmosphere appear as meteors (shooting stars) and meteor showers. After floating through space, the rocks enter the Earths atmosphere and the outsides of the rocks get very hot and melt because they are traveling over 25,000 miles per hour. Meteors can form from asteroid or comet debris. Larger pieces, which survive their descent through the atmosphere, and land on Earth, are called meteorites. Just as marshmallows get burnt on the outside, meteorites develop a black fusion crust from the friction of descending through the Earth atmosphere. Meteoroids or comets, large enough to form impact craters the size of a house or larger, are rare. Meteor crater in Arizona formed 20-50,000 years ago. The diameter of Meteor Crater is 1.2 kilometers in diameters and more than 180 meters deep. Meteorites fall everywhere on Earth. There might even be one in your backyard! One of the best places, however, to find meteorites are in Antarctica because they are easy to spot against the white background. Thousands of meteorites have been recovered from Antarctica. Types of meteorites - Traditionally, meteorites are classified into three broad categories based on their composition: Stones Stony meteorites or stones contain largely silicate minerals, which are minerals that contain silicon (Si) and oxygen, O. Stony meteorites can be very similar to Earth rocks, which also often contain silicate minerals. However, stones also contain some metallic iron-nickel and are thus unique. Most stones are chondrites, pronounced kondrites. Most chondrites contain chondrules, which are small, spherical silicate objects on the order of a millimeter in size. Scientists are interested in chondrites because their chemical composition reflects that of the solar nebula, which is the cloud of gas and dust that condensed and accumulated to form the sun and the planets. The chondrules were formed in the nebula by a rapid heating process, possibly lightning, or other processes. Another type of stony meteorite is the achondrites (meteorites without chondrules). These are actually igneous rocks from magmas that formed on asteroids. These asteroids became hot enough to melt from radioactive elements just after the solar system formed. Irons Iron meteorites or irons are composed mainly of iron alloyed with nickel and cobalt, and they usually contain a sulfide mineral (like fools gold) troilite (FeS). Irons are the meteorites that are most easy to identify because they are heavier than most rocks, are magnetic, and are made of iron and

nickel metal. Just like the Earth which has an iron-nickel core, the composition of irons indicates that they represent the cores of their parent asteroids. The irons also come from asteroids that melted. Stony-Irons The stony-iron meteorites or stony-irons are composed of approximately equal amounts of rocky material and metallic iron-nickel. What is the difference between stones, irons, and stony-irons. If an asteroid, like the Earth, contains a core, mantle, and crust then the irons would be from the core, the stones from the crust and the stony-irons from in between the core and mantle. Why Study Meteorites? Meteorites provide information about the early history of the solar system. The primitive meteorites contain clues about the composition of the solar nebula and how the solar system formed from the solar nebula. Meteorites from the Moon and Mars provide material from those planets without a space mission. Impact Craters During the early history of the solar system, the Earth was covered with impact craters and probably looked like the Moon. Over the last few billion years, erosion and mountain building have erased most of these original craters. Because there is less erosion and mountain building on the Moon, Mars, asteroids, and other moons, these craters remain. Large impact craters known on the Earth range up to several hundred miles in diameter. During the formation of an impact crater, large amounts of rock can be melted, and some melted material, called tektites, can be thrown completely out of the atmosphere before reentering and falling back to Earth, far from the crater. Vocabulary Solar System The sun, the nine planets, asteroids, and comets that revolve around the sun. Meteor The flash of light that we see in the night sky caused by the friction of a meteoroid passing through the atmosphere. Meteoroid An interplanetary chunk of matter that is smaller than a kilometer in diameter and most frequently measured in millimeters. Meteorite Any part of a meteoroid that that survives its fall through the atmosphere and lands on the Earth. Asteroid A small solar system object composed mostly of rock. Many of these objects orbit the sun between Mars and Jupiter. Their size can range anywhere from 10 meters in diameter to less than 1000 kilometers. Comet A small solar system object consisting of ice and other compounds that form a coma and sometimes a visible tail whenever they orbit close to the Sun. Comet Debris Clumps of dust that are released from comets as they approach the sun. Chondrite A meteorite containing chondrules, which are small, spherical silicate objects on the order of a millimeter in size that formed in the solar nebula before the asteroids were formed. Achondrite A meteorite consisting of igneous minerals and no chondrules.
Meteorites.doc Rev1, 6/04