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Where Do Meteorites Come From?


Meteorites are ambassadors from afar, providing scientists with unique opportunities to investigate the physical and chemical nature of distant worlds.  Most meteorites originate in asteroids, although a few meteorites come from larger planetary bodies like the Moon or Mars.

 

Asteroids- Most of the meteorites in our collections are fragments of asteroids, minor planets that circle the Sun between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. There are millions of asteroids, and more are discovered every years.  They come in all sizes, with diameters ranging from a few feet to hundreds of miles.

 

When an asteroid reflects sunlight, some wavelengths of light (certain colors) are absorbed by the asteroid's surface materials whereas the remaining wavelengths are reflected back to space.  Astronomers can study the "reflectance spectra" of asteroids to learn about their compositional and structural makeup, and such studies show that asteroids are made of variable amounts of stone and iron (just like meteorites).  In a few cases, scientists have been able to pair individual meteorites with specific parent asteroids.

 

The left photo shows the asteroid belt (white dots).  The right photo shows a closeup of the Gaspra asteroid (NASA image).

 

Asteroids do not have stable orbits like those of the major planets.  Gravitational forces between asteroids and neighboring Mars and Jupiter, as well as collisions between asteroids, occasionally deflect asteroids from their normal orbits. Most of these rogue bodies are lost to the emptiness of space, but inevitably some fragments will intersect the Earth’s orbit and may fall to Earth's surface as meteorites.

 


 

Planetary Meteorites- While most meteorites hail from the asteroid belt, we are confident that a minority of the specimens in our collections comes from the Moon and Mars.  These "planetary meteorites" were launched from their parent planets by high velocity impacts that set the stage for a transfer of rocks between planets.  The cratered surface of our Moon illustrates the importance of impact processing during its history.  The Earth's surface would be similarly pot-marked, but traces of impacts are rapidly overprinted by Earth's dynamic forces (erosion, tectonics, and volcanism) that constantly reshape our landscape.

 

The Moon (left) and Mars (right) are the parent planets for a minority of meteorites (NASA images).

 

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