What Happens When Meteors Hit Earth?

Wednesday, February 28, 2018


It turns out, meteors hit Earth all the time, and it’s usually no big deal.

Vocabulary: Meteor, seismograph, meteor fall, Richter scale

Next Generation Science Standards: ESS1.B: Earth and the Solar SystemCCC1: PatternsSEP 4: Analyzing and Interpreting DataCan be used to build towards MS-ESS1–3



CA rendering of a meteor shower. Credit: Shutterstock, with elements of this image furnished by NASA.aption


On January 16, 2018, a fireball exploded over southeastern Michigan, producing a show that lit up the skies over multiple states. The explosion, confirmed to be a meteor by NASA, was strong enough to register as a 2.0 magnitude earthquake on some seismometers. Astronomers estimated the size of the space rock responsible to be about two yards in diameter. View footage of the blazing meteor streak across the sky below:


While rocks falling out of the sky is common, Rachel Feltman, science editor at Popular Science, talks about why the blast was interesting to researchers.


Audio Excerpt “A Michigan Fireball” Jan 19, 2018 (Original Segment)


  • Why do most of these “fireballs” (meteors that burn upon entering our atmosphere) go unnoticed? Based on this interview, if you looked at a map of where meteorites have been found, what patterns would you expect to find?
  • According to Feltman, why are meteors generally not something to be worried about?
  • Look at the video below tweeted by a witness who saw the meteor in Michigan in January 2018. Based on what you see in the video, why might someone mistakenly report that the meteor caused an earthquake?
  • How are the vibrations caused by the meteor similar to and different from an Earthquake?

Activity Suggestions

  • Go meteorite hunting! After the meteor in Michigan made headlines, many people went out looking for pieces of it in the snow, even though they are extremely rare and can be difficult to distinguish from many other types of rocks. The good news is that micrometeorites — tiny bits of meteorite about the size of a grain of sand — can be found more easily, and all you need is a magnet and a plastic baggie. Use this guide to help you search for micrometeorites, then check out these images of scientifically verified micrometeorites.
  • Take a look at this interactive map of meteorite falls. Why do all meteors appear to fall on land and not in oceans? Does this map support the claims made by Flatow and Feltman in this interview for why meteors aren’t seen very often? Look through the data by clicking on each dot individually and reading about the meteor it represents. Based on the data, what does the size of each dot on the map most likely represent? What about the color of each dot? Devise another way to visualize data on where or how frequently meteors fall to Earth. If you’d like, you can even explore the raw meteorite data that the interactive map was based on and plot a subset of the 45,000 meteors in the database yourself!

Additional Resources