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What's the Difference between a Meteor, a Meteorite, and a Fireball

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Photo courtesy of National Geographic Photo courtesy of National Geographic

There have been dozens of reports of meteors and fireballs over the past two nights, including some right here in Kentucky. One of the "bigger" ones was caught on camera Tuesday night outside of Detroit. This meteor reaches the ground, and the impact was the equivalent of a magnitude 2.0 earthquake.

(Video courtesy of NBC News)

Meteors and fireballs are quite common. Thousands of meteors, large and small, enter the Earth's atmosphere every day. Some burn up on impact, while others aren't visible during the daytime. You may be wondering what is the difference between a meteor and a fireball?

The answer is there really isn't that big of a difference between a meteor and fireball. Let's start from the begin. An asteroid is a small rocky or icy debris that orbits around the Sun. Sometimes pieces of the asteroid break off. These smaller pieces are called meteoroids.

An asteroid or a meteoroid becomes a meteor when it enters the Earth's atmosphere. A meteor is also defined by the light emitted by that asteroid or meteoroid. A fireball is nothing more than a bright meteor, in particular a meteor brighter than Venus. An audible noise may also accompany a fireball. A meteor or fireball that reaches the ground is known as a meteorite.

(Image courtesy of American Meteor Society)

Flashes of various colors have been reported with meteors and fireballs. The dominant composition of the meteoroid influences the observed color - sodium produces a yellow tail, nickel appears green, and magnesium will give off a blue-white hue. The colors can be intensified by how fast the meteoroid is traveling through the atmosphere.

- Meteorologist Jill Szwed

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