Meteors and asteroids: What is the difference?

Feb. 15, 2013 | 4:59 p.m.
An image of the  meteor that streaked across the sky of Russia’s Ural Mountains on Friday morning . (AP Photo / Nasha gazeta,

An image of the meteor that streaked across the sky of Russia’s Ural Mountains on Friday morning . (Nasha gazeta,

A meteor brighter than the sun streaked across a portion of Russia on Friday. At the same time, an asteroid the size of half a football field was zipping by Earth, closer than the moon.

But what is the difference between a meteor and an asteroid?

According to NASA, an asteroid is a rocky body that orbits the sun. Some asteroids are the size of small boulders, others can be up to several miles in diameter.

PHOTOS: Meteor streaks over Russia

Larger asteroids are sometimes called planetoids or minor planets. Very small ones are called meteoroids. A meteoroid can be smaller than a marble.

When an asteroid or a meteoroid enters the Earth’s atmosphere it burns up and creates a streak of light (a shooting star). That streak of light is called a meteor.

Most meteors burn up entirely as they pass through the atmosphere, but sometimes they don’t. A piece of a meteor that actually hits the Earth’s surface is called a meteorite.

The meteor that caused the streak of light across Russia was an asteroid before it hit the Earth’s atmosphere. NASA scientists estimate it was about 45 feet across, or about the size of a locomotive, before it was smashed to pieces by the force of hitting Earth’s atmosphere.

Asteroid 2012 DA14, which brushed  past Earth on Friday, was 140-feet in diameter. Since it did not enter Earth’s atmosphere, and has continued on its way, it is still an asteroid.

— Deborah Netburn


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23 Responses to Meteors and asteroids: What is the difference?

  1. Marcus says:

    Thank you Deborah. It's good to read something educational.

  2. Dave Lussier says:

    An asteroid comes from teh asteroid belt that orbits teh sum mostly between Mars and Jupitor. Meteors for the most part originate from cometary debris.

  3. Russ Loar says:

    Don't you mean meteoroid instead of "meteorid"? My dictionaries do not have the word "meteorid" in them, and neither does Wikipedia.

  4. Carol says:

    > That streak of light is called a meteor.

    The *LIGHT* is the meteor? NOT the thing itself? (The LA Times really should stop trying to write any tech or science stories.)

  5. Steve says:

    If somebody can tell the difference between a meteor and an asteroid after reading this article they must be a genius !

  6. Carol says:

    > That streak of light is called a meteor.

  7. Dr Richard says:

    Totally confusing explanation . . . and I have an earth science background plus a doctoral degree ! We have a saying downunder in Oz when someone says something confusing; it is 'what th' !' coined by Rove on TV here. So for this set of defintions, it is a BIG 'WHAT TH'' " !!!!!

  8. deborahnetburn says:

    Russ Loar, yes. You are right. I meant meteoroid. It was a typo. I am changing it now.

  9. deborahnetburn says:

    And to Carol, yes. The light itself is the meteor. Here's how NASA defines Meteor: "The light phenomena which results when a meteoroid enters the Earth's atmosphere and vaporizes; a shooting star."

  10. sam says:

    thanks for a nice explanation..

  11. kinginhiscastle says:

    Folks, this is very simple. If an asteroid enters the atmosphere and begins burning, it is a meteor. If a meteor reaches the ground, it is termed a meteorite. If it flies on by, it remains whatever it was. So, regarding the Russian object, a small asteroid entered the atmosphere, became a meteor, and hit the ground, becoming a meteorite(s).

  12. Bart says:

    Just to clarify it for some people, as long as the debris is outside our atmosphere, it is called an asteroid, once it enters our atmosphere it is called a meteor, according to the explanation above.

  13. alex says:

    I read this but I still have no idea what the difference is. And I suspect that neither does the author.

  14. Bart says:

    Here's another explanation from someone on facebook:

    Asteroids can become meteors. In general, asteroids remain in space, minding their business. But if they happen to get to close to the earth (or any other planet or a star) then the gravity pulls them towards that planet or star, turning them into meteors. Meteors fall onto a planet or a star.

    Credits to Y. J. on FB

  15. Josh says:

    Does a meteoroid have anything to do with a hemorrhoid?

  16. Mncedisi says:

    Correct me if I’m wrong, from what I have read above, a meteor is an asteroid that enters the atmosphere(heading to earth), then gains some heat, thus burning up. My question is, what exactly is the cause of this asteroid to burn up and become a meteor?

  17. unkown bitch says:


  18. sateesh says:

    Why the asteroid didn’t follow a fixed way?

  19. salena says:

    I need information about asteroids!!!

  20. Ashauriah Jordan says:

    It gave good information to me

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