There are many things floating out there in our solar system other than our sun, planets, and their moons. But there is usually a lot of confusion of what really to call these things. According to Discovery Education, an asteroid is “one of the many small or minor planets that are members of the solar system and that move in elliptical orbits primarily between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.” In laymen’s terms, it is any of the small, rocky bodies that revolve around the sun. This can include both comets and meteoroids. So, not all asteroids are meteoroids, but all meteoroids are asteroids.
The vast majority of the asteroids in our solar system are found in the asteroid belt that separates the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, and serves as the dividing line between the inner and outer planets. There are two main thoughts on how this asteroid belt formed. The first is that it was originally a pair of planets or moons that collided with each other. The second and more widely accepted theory is that the asteroid belt is made up of material that Jupiter’s gravity prevented from becoming a planet.
With the large amount of these asteroids floating about, our solar system has become a cosmic shooting gallery. Asteroids can range in size from the size of a golf ball to larger than the state of Texas (Armageddon anyone?) Asteroids of this size are global killers, and it is theorized that this is what wiped out the dinosaurs almost 65 million years ago. The asteroid would have ejected tons of material into the Earth’s atmosphere, blocking out the sun’s light. This would have led to a global climate change, and put a stop to the process of photosynthesis. Without large amounts of plant material, the large herbivore species of the time would have perished very quickly, thus cutting off the food supply for carnivores. Those that did not die off in this manner would not have been able to adapt quickly enough to rapid the decline in global temperatures. A bleak picture of a possible future? It is possible that at some point this may be the fate of mankind, but our asteroid detection and monitoring systems have kept an eye out for any of these planet killers. Our moon is a testament to how close many of them have come.
But we cannot overlook the fact that these small rocky bodies enter our atmosphere every day, the vast majority no bigger than a bowling ball and most about as small as a golf ball. Any time you see a “shooting star” in the sky, it is actually the friction caused by our atmosphere burning these rocky bodies to dust. Once these meteoroids enter our atmosphere, they are now known as meteors. If these meteors survive their entry into our atmosphere and crash into our planet, they are then known as meteorites.
This video is a rather catchy way of remembering all of this.