Asteroid or Meteor: What's the difference?

Asteroids and meteors are both types of space rocks. However, the difference between the two depends on how close they are to Earth’s surface.


Asteroids

An asteroid is a small rocky body orbiting the sun.

A close-up image of the asteroid Eros.

A close-up view of Eros, an asteroid with an orbit that takes it somewhat close to Earth. The photo was taken by NASA’s Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous - Shoemaker spacecraft in 2000. Image credit: NASA/JHUAPL

Most asteroids in our solar system are found in the main asteroid belt, a region between Mars and Jupiter. But they can also hang out in other locations around the solar system. For example, some asteroids orbit the sun in a path that takes them near Earth.

Illustration of the location of the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Most asteroids in our solar system can be found in the asteroid belt, between Mars and Jupiter.

Meteoroids

Sometimes one asteroid can smash into another. This can cause small pieces of the asteroid to break off. Those pieces are called meteoroids.

Illustration of a large asteroid and a small meteoroid that has broken off of it.

Meteors

If a meteoroid comes close enough to Earth and enters the Earth’s atmosphere, it vaporizes and turns into a meteor: a beautiful streak of light in the sky.

Because of their appearance, these streaks of light some people call meteors "shooting stars." But scientists know that meteors are not stars at all—they are just bits of rock!

A photograph of meteors streaking through the sky, taken during the Perseid meteor shower.

At certain times of the year, you might be lucky enough to see more meteors in the sky than usual. This is called a meteor shower. This photo was taken during the Perseid meteor shower, which happens each year in August. Image credit: NASA/JPL

Meteors leave streaks of light in the sky, they are sometimes confused with comets, but they are very different.


Comets

Comets orbit the sun, like asteroids. But comets seem to contain much more ice and gas, and sometimes comets even develop large and beautiful tails.

As a comet’s orbit takes it toward the sun, the ice and dust begin to vaporize. That vaporized ice and dust becomes the comet’s tail. You can see a comet even when it is very far from Earth. However, when you see a meteor, it’s in our atmosphere.


Meteorites

But sometimes, the meteoroid rocks don’t vaporize completely. In fact, they survive their trip through Earth’s atmosphere and land as rocks on the Earth’s surface. Those rocks are called meteorites.

A photograph of a man walking towards a meteorite in Sudan's Nubian Desert.

A scientist investigates a meteorite that landed in Sudan's Nubian Desert in 2008. Image credit: NASA

NASA’s Johnson Space Center has a collection of meteorites that have been collected from many different locations on Earth. The collection acts as a meteorite library for scientist. By studying different types of meteorites, scientists can learn more about asteroids, planets, and other parts of our solar system.

Because asteroids formed near at the beginning of our solar system nearly 4.6 billion years ago, meteorites can give scientists information about what the solar system was like way back then!

article last updated April 5, 2017

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