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Space rocks in the air and on Earth

What's the difference between a meteor and an asteroid? With the hullabaloo over the near-miss of the asteroid, and the meteor that exploded over Russia on Friday, I was trying to recall the difference. Alas, those science classes are just too distant. However, I do recall that a meteorite is a space rock that has landed on Earth.

— Jim S., Medford

You asked the very question that has been on the minds of the space cadets up at the SYA's orbiting command post, Jim.

And your description of a meteorite is right on target. Meteorites are space rocks that survive their plummet to Earth and don't burn up in our atmosphere.

But meteorites, meteors and asteroids are all related, according to the really smart folks in white coats.

A meteorite starts out as a chunk of rock and ice in space, becoming a streaking meteor when it plunges into Earth's atmosphere, scientists explain. The bright tail is the result of the heat caused by the atmospheric friction, creating what earthlings call "shooting stars."

The generally larger asteroids orbit around our sun, and are sometimes known as planetoids. They are much smaller than planets but much larger than the meteoroids that turn into meteors.

But the main difference between asteroids and meteors is that an asteroid will always be in space. Once that rock enters our atmosphere, it becomes a meteor. And, if it lands, it is a meteorite.

Don't get us started on comets, which come from deep outer space.