• Sara Thompson

Asteroids, Comets, and Meteors; what’s the difference?

Updated: Aug 19

By Sara Thompson

Special to the Enterprise

one large asteroid called vesta and smaller asteroids of various names
A comparative size of eight asteroids

Looking at the night sky is a common pastime of people around the world. Classifying and naming celestial objects is important for scientists to be able to study space. A few of those classifications are asteroids, comets, and meteors, but what is the difference between all of these seemingly similar objects flying though our solar system?


An asteroid is classified as a rocky object that orbits around the Sun. They can range in size from one meter in diameter to almost 1000km in diameter! Some are large enough to also be classified as a dwarf planet. They can be separated into three groups: C-type, or carbonaceous, meaning they are carbon based, M-type, or metallic, are metal based, and S-type, or silicaceous, are silica based.


A comet also orbits around the Sun but differs from a meteor by instead of being made of rock, they are made of ice and dust. Solar wind and radiation exert force on the comet causing dust and gas to be released and this forms the famous comet feature, the ‘tail’. Comet tails will always point away from the Sun in its orbit around it. Comets have an eccentric elliptical orbit, and have a wide range of orbital periods, meaning some can be seen every couple of years, and others only appearing every million years or more!


Meteoroids are similar to asteroids in that they are made of rocky or metallic materials, but they are considerably smaller. Meteoroids are objects smaller than one meter in diameter, down to only a pebble size. Meteoroids that enter the Earth’s atmosphere are meteors. Meteors usually burn and break up in the atmosphere, but if they survive, they are then called meteorites and are collected by rock enthusiasts around the world.


Campers at this week's Out of This World! camp learned about space with hands-on activities and experiments, including asteroids, comets, and meteors. They also studied our Solar System, discovering the unique features of each planet, made a human sundial, learned about constellations, and even experimented with dry ice!


 

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