A meteoroid is a small sand- to boulder-sized particle of debris in the Solar system. The visible path of a meteoroid that enters Earth's (or another body's) atmosphere is a meteor, commonly called a "shooting star" or "falling star". On reaching the ground, a meteor is then called a meteorite. Many meteors are part of a meteor shower. The root word meteor comes from the Greek meteōros, meaning high in the air.
Larger than a meteoroid, the object is an asteroid; smaller than that, it is interplanetary dust. The current official definition of a meteoroid from the International Astronomical Union is "a solid object moving in interplanetary space, of a size considerably smaller than an asteroid and considerably larger than an atom. The Royal Astronomical Society has proposed a new definition where a meteoroid is between 100 µm and 10 m across. The NEO definition includes larger objects, up to 50 m in diameter, in this category.
The composition of meteoroids can be determined as they pass through Earth's atmosphere from their trajectory and the light spectra of the resulting meteor. Their effects on radio signals also yield information, especially useful for daytime meteors which are otherwise very difficult to observe. From these trajectory measurements, meteoroids have been found to have many different orbits, some clustering in streams (see Meteor showers) often associated with a parent comet, others apparently sporadic. The light spectra, combined with trajectory and light curve measurements, have yielded various compositions and densities, ranging from fragile snowball-like objects with density about a quarter that of ice, to nickel-iron rich dense rocks. A relatively small percentage of meteoroids hit the Earth's atmosphere and then pass out again: these are termed Earth-grazing fireballs.
A meteor is the visible event that occurs when a meteoroid or asteroid enters Earth's atmosphere and becomes brightly visible. This typically occurs in the mesosphere, and most visible meteors range in altitude from 75km to 100km.
For bodies with a size scale larger than the atmospheric mean free path (10 cm to several metres) the visibility is due to the heat produced by the ram pressure (not friction, as is commonly assumed) of atmospheric entry. Since the majority of meteors are from small sand-grain size meteoroid bodies, most visible signatures are caused by electron relaxation following the individual collisions between vaporized meteor atoms and atmospheric constituents. The meteor is simply the visible event rather than an object itself.
Molten terrestrial material "splashed" from a crater can cool and solidify into an object known as a tektite. These are often mistaken for meteorites.
Most meteoroids are destroyed when they enter the atmosphere. The left-over debris is called meteoric dust or just meteor dust. Meteor dust particles can persist in the atmosphere for up to several months. These particles might affect climate, both by scattering electromagnetic radiation and by catalyzing chemical reactions in the upper atmosphere.
Many investigators believe the sounds to be imaginary — essentially sound effects added by the mind to go along with a light show. However, the persistence and consistency of the reports have caused others to wonder. Sound recordings made under controlled conditions in Mongolia in 1998 by a team led by Slaven Garaj, a physicist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology at Lausanne, support the contention that the sounds are real.
How these sounds could be generated, assuming they are in fact real, remains something of a mystery. It has been hypothesized that the turbulent ionized wake of a meteor interacts with the magnetic field of the Earth, generating pulses of radio waves. As the trail dissipates, megawatts of electromagnetic energy could be released, with a peak in the power spectrum at audio frequencies. Physical vibrations induced by the electromagnetic impulses would then be heard if they are powerful enough to make grasses, plants, eyeglass frames, and other conductive materials vibrate. This proposed mechanism, although proven to be plausible by laboratory work, remains unsupported by corresponding measurements in the field.
A number of specific meteors have been observed, largely by members of the public and largely by accident, but with enough detail that orbits of the incoming meteors or meteorites have been calculated. All of them came from orbits from the vicinity of the asteroid belt.
Perhaps the best-known meteor/meteorite fall is the Peekskill Meteorite which was filmed on October 9, 1992 by at least 16 independent videographers.
Eyewitness accounts indicate that the fireball entry of the Peekskill meteorite started over West Virginia at 23:48 UT (±1 min). The fireball, which traveled in a northeasterly direction had a pronounced greenish colour, and attained an estimated peak visual magnitude of -13. During a luminous flight time that exceeded 40 seconds the fireball covered a ground path of some 700 to 800 km.
One meteorite recovered at Peekskill, N.Y., for which the event and object gained its name, (at 41.28 deg. N, 81.92 deg. W) had a mass of 12.4 kg (27 lb) and was subsequently identified as an H6 monomict breccia meteorite. The video record suggests that the Peekskill meteorite probably had several companions over a wide area especially in the harsh terrain in the vicinity of Peekskill.