“A rose by any other name…”

In my last post, “It seems the sky is falling…”, I talked about the Russian meteor event and flyby of asteroid 2012 DA14, both of which occurred on Friday, February 15, 2013. In that post I talked a lot about the various terms of things in space that can enter the Earth’s atmosphere and ultimately cause an “impact”. But there are a lot of terms and some of them have very minute differences, so I figured I’d devote a post just to explaining these terms. Specifically, I’d like to look at a few differences.

“Meteoroid” vs. “Meteor” vs. “Meteorite”

These words all share the same root, the Greek word meteōros, meaning “suspended in the air”, and look very similar, but they do mean different things. To start off, let’s think of a small piece of rock in space. We don’t care what kind of rock it is or where it comes from, let’s just call it a small rock. Now, let’s say that small rock is happily zipping around the solar system, obeying the law of gravity as it orbits the Sun, when suddenly it gets too close to Earth and the gravitational pull of the planet sends tugs it out of its original orbit and towards our planet. Now, that small piece of rock that’s on it’s way into the Earth’s atmosphere, that’s a “meteoroid”. Once that “meteoroid” hits the Earth’s atmosphere travelling at high speed it’s going to heat up and leave a trail in the sky. That heating up and the resulting streak in the sky is a “meteor”- commonly referred as a “shooting star”. If you get a whole bunch of associated “meteoroids”, say a whole bunch of little pieces of rock left over from an asteroid or comet that passed by, that enter the atmosphere at the same time, creating meteors, that’s called a “meteor shower”. So, the “meteoroid” is the small rock that causes streak of light and the “meteor” is the actual visible streak we see. Now as that “meteoroid” is hurtling through the atmosphere and heating up, it can literally blow up. That huge flash that’s caused by the disintegration of the “meteoroid” is known as a “fireball” and really bright “fireballs” are known as “bolides”. That huge flash of light is usually associated with a large deposit of energy into the atmosphere that causes a pressure wave like to ones seen in Tunguska and Chelyabinsk.

A meteor or “shooting star” streaking across the sky is really a piece of debris burning up in the atmosphere. Credit: Wikipedia

The solar system is full of little pieces of debris moving really fast and without the atmosphere that debris would constantly be pummeling the surface of the planet…and us. So the atmosphere protects us. Things are constantly entering the atmosphere and burning up, creating “meteors”. Most of these “meteoroids” are about the size of a pebble- much to small to reach the Earth’s surface. But it does happen occasionally. When large objects enter the atmosphere and make it down to Earth, that remaining piece of rock that reaches the ground is known as a “meteorite”. So yeah, if you’re one your way to work in the morning and see that there’s a huge piece of rock sitting on your car, that’s probably a “meteorite”…or there’s someone who really doesn’t like you. Don’t worry though, as Bad Astronomer Phil Plait writes, only one person has ever been hit by a meteorite and that occurred in Alabama in 1954.

This Canyon Diablo meteorite was part of the 50-meter asteroid that formed the mile-wide Meteor Crater in Arizona. Credit: Wikipedia

Now, not all “meteors” and “meteorites” are caused by natural objects in space. Think about all of the satellites and “space junk” orbiting the Earth. If any of that space junk were to re-enter the atmosphere it would burn up, just like a space rock, and cause a meteor. And another, less appealing example is astronaut waste. On the now-retired Space Shuttles, the urine was expelled out into the upper atmosphere to burn up/evaporate– this actually created a visible glow. Solid waste on the Space Shuttles was collected and removed once the Shuttle returned to the ground, unfortunately that’s not really an option on the International Space Station (ISS), where astronaut waste is stored, then loaded into a disposable space probe and ejected out to burn up in the atmosphere. So yeah, next time you wish on a shooting star, just think that it might actually be astronaut poop.

“Comet” vs. “Asteroid”

Okay so now we’ve talked about the differences between the things that enter the atmosphere. But beyond man-made sources, where do those “meteoroids” come from? Many of them are from rocky, metallic objects in the solar system known as “asteroids”. What are asteroids? According to NASA:

“Most asteroids are made of rock, but some are composed of metal, mostly nickel and iron. They range in size from small boulders to objects that are hundreds of miles in diameter. A small portion of the asteroid population may be burned-out comets whose ices have evaporated away and been blown off into space. Almost all asteroids are part of the Main Asteroid Belt, with orbits in the vast region of space between Mars and Jupiter.”

Most asteroids are actually leftover bits and pieces of planets that weren’t able to coalesce under gravity. As the NASA page describes, most asteroids live in the Asteroid Belt that orbits between Mars and Jupiter. However, as those asteroids travel around the Sun, they can bump into each other, causing a rogue asteroid to leave the Asteroid Belt and traverse the solar system. Sometimes those asteroids fall into the Sun, sometimes they collide with Earth or other planets.

Vesta, one of the largest asteroids in the solar system, was recently studied by NASA’s Dawn mission. Dawn was the first spacecraft ever to go into orbit around an asteroid. Credit: Wikipedia

So what’s the difference between an asteroid and a comet? A “comet” is an icy body that lives out in the farthest regions of the solar system. There is belief by scientists that many comets primarily live in a region at the edge of the solar system known as the Oort Cloud. As these icy bodies come into the inner solar system and approach the Sun, they increase in brightness as the heat from the Sun causes the ice to melt and reflect sunlight. Comets are generally much easier to view than asteroids due to the high reflectivity of the water vapor it releases as they travel through the inner solar system. Generally comets that pass by the orbit of the Earth leave a debris trail in their wake. When the Earth’s orbit takes it through one of those debris trails, it causes a meteor shower.

Comet West made a spectacular show for skywatchers in March 1976. This image shows a great example of the two types of tails that comets often have. One tail is caused by water vapor coming off from sunlight and the other is ionization caused by the solar wind of particles streaming off of the Sun. Credit: APOD/NASA

So comets are mostly icy bodies that live out at the very edge of the solar system and asteroids are rocky, metallic bodies that generally live in the Asteroid Belt in the region between Mars and Jupiter.

So what did we learn?

So let’s review in this handy table made by the great folks at NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program:

Asteroid A relatively small, inactive, rocky body orbiting the Sun.
Comet A relatively small, at times active, object whose ices can vaporize in sunlight forming an atmosphere (coma) of dust and gas and, sometimes, a tail of dust and/or gas.
Meteoroid A small particle from a comet or asteroid orbiting the Sun.
Meteor The light phenomena which results when a meteoroid enters the Earth’s atmosphere and vaporizes; a shooting star.
Meteorite A meteoroid that survives its passage through the Earth’s atmosphere and lands upon the Earth’s surface.

Curiosity did not kill the cat…

So as I’m sure you’ve all heard, NASA’s Curiosity rover successfully landed on the surface of Mars in the early hours of yesterday morning (east coast time). In an earlier post, I relayed the video by NASA of the harrowing entry that Curiosity needed to go through to reach the Martian surface safely and highlighted that the entire elaborate landing procedure was 100% automated since it takes double the time the landing would take to occur for information to be relayed back to Earth. And all the taxings of a mission so complicated, despite all the finesse and delicacy needed to execute such a bold attempt, and despite all the things that could go wrong, the scientists and engineers at NASA succeeded. Honestly, if you watch the 7 Minutes of Terror video, realize that scientists built and programmed a machine that could do that all automatically, millions of miles away from Earth (352 million to be exact) while moving at thousands of miles per hour and have it work flawlessly, and aren’t awed and impressed, then well you should probably check your pulse.

The Mars Science Laboratory’s mission is to investigate the interior of the Gale Crater for signs of microbial life. Top left: A profile of Curiosity’s landing site, Gale Crater. Top Right: A simulation of Curiosity’s proposed mission. Bottom: A map showing the distribution of NASA’s missions to the Martian surface. Credit: BBC News

In addition to being the largest rover we’ve ever sent to another world, twice as long (about 10 feet)  and five times as heavy as NASA’s twin Mars Exploration RoversSpirit and Opportunity, launched in 2003, Curiosity also has new equipment that allows it to gather samples of rocks and soil, process them, and then distribute them to various scientific instruments it carries for analysis; that internal instrument suite includes a gas chromatograph, a mass spectrometer, and a tunable laser spectrometer with combined capabilities to identify a wide range of organic (carbon-containing) compounds and determine the ratios of different isotopes of key elements. There’s clearly a reason why the mission is called the Mars Science Laboratory.

This illustration from NASA shows the size and instrumentation of Curiosity that will help it to investigate the possibility of microbial life on Mars. (A) Six independent wheels allowing the rover to travel over the rocky Martian surface. (B) Equipped with 17 cameras, Curiosity will identify particular targets and then zap them with a  laser to probe their chemistry. (C) If the signal is significant, Curiosity will swing over instruments on its arm for close-up investigation. (D) Samples drilled from rock, or scooped from the soil, can be delivered to two hi-tech analysis labs inside the rover body. (E) The results are sent to Earth through antennas on the rover deck. Return commands tell the rover where it should drive next. Credit: BBC News

According to NASA, Curiosity carries with it “the most advanced payload of scientific gear ever used on Mars’ surface, a payload more than 10 times as massive as those of earlier Mars rovers.” All that gear will be important as Curiosity investigates its main science objective: whether or not there is evidence of microbial life (past or present) in Martian rocks. Although both Spirit and Opportunity listed the search for life as among their scientific goals, neither rover was really equipped to search for microbial life; the twin early generation rovers were more specifically looking for water or the evidence of past water on the Martian surface and then whether that water could sustain life. Curiosity, on the other hand, is specifically equipped to look for microbial life (or evidence of it) in the rocks and soil of the Red Planet. More than just the roving explorer that its forebears were, Curiosity is for all intents and purposes a laboratory on wheels.

This image of Curiosity descending to the Martian surface with its parachute was taken by the High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The rover is descending toward the etched plains just north of the sand dunes that fringe Aeolis Mons. Credit: NASA

And it’s not just the instrumentation that Curiosity is equipped with that make NASA rover 2.0 better than previous generations, but the technology it used to get to the Martian surface is leaps and bounds ahead of how Spirit and Opportunity landed. If you watch this NASA movie that highlights the landing process for the Mars Exploration Rovers (which only had six minutes of terror), you’ll notice that most of the landing procedure seems similar to Curiosity’s. Extremely high-speed entry into the Martian atmosphere, heat shield, parachute, rocket thrusters, etc. Until you get to the last step, when Spirit and Opportunity wer basically dropped onto the Martian surface at nearly 60 mph, surrounded by huge air bags, and allowed to bounce three or four times until they settled. Compared to the fine precision placement of the Curiosity rover earlier this week, the previous rovers’ landings were downright barbaric, like trying to hunt a deer by throwing rocks.

This image, one of the first returned by Curiosity, shows the rover’s shadow on the Martian surface and one of the main targets of its mission, Aeolis Mons, on the distant horizon. Credit: CNN

Rather than violently smashing the $2.6 billion rover into the surface and hoping for the best, this descent involved a sky crane and the world’s largest supersonic parachute, which allowed the spacecraft carrying Curiosity to target the specific landing area that NASA scientists had meticulously chosen. That landing area is roughly 12 km (7.5 miles) from the foot of the Martian peak previously known as Mount Sharp. Aeolis Mons, as it’s now known, is the 18,000-foot (5,500-meter) peak at the center of Gale Crater, previously known as Mount Sharp. The stratified composition of the mountain could give scientists a layer-by-layer look at the history of the planet as Curiosity attempts its two-year mission to determine whether Mars ever had an environment capable of supporting life.

Possibly the biggest piece of the NASA Curiosity puzzle has been the enormous PR campaign that NASA has thrown behind the rover. Not only has the rover and it’s 7 Minute of Terror video been all over the internet, TV news, newspapers, and other media outlets, but NASA has even gone out of its way to get high-level stars in the fold. Last week they released this video (above) of William Shatner, most famously known as Capt. James Tiberius Kirk of Star Trek, narrating a preview of Curiosity’s “Grand Entrance” to Mars. There was also another video featuring narration by Wil Wheaton (Wesley Crusher from Star Trek: The Next Generation).


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