Elements Found in Meteorites & Meteors

By Kevin Lee

Definitions and Clarifications

Different people may call shooting stars different names. A shooting star is a meteor or meteorite that leaves a bright trail as it blazes through the atmosphere. Meteors differ from meteorites because meteorites reach the ground before burning up; meteors do not. Meteors are often surprisingly small and may be no larger than a rice grain. They usually consist of comet fragments while meteorites are often broken pieces of asteroids.

Inside a Meteorite

There's nothing magical about a meteor or meteorite. They consist of elements that you find on Earth and no one has ever found a new element in one of these objects. However, some meteorites may contain elements and minerals that are not common on this planet. For example, scientists found oldhamite in a meteorite they recovered in California. Oldhamite is a calcium sulfide that you rarely find on Earth. In 1948, hundreds of meteorites fell over Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas. One of the largest meteorites was a rare type called enstatite achondrite. These meteorites consist of enstatite -- a mineral composed of silicon, oxygen and magnesium. Enstatite achondrites may also contain rare sulfide minerals such as niningerite.

Sometimes You Find Something New

While meteorites may not contain new elements, they can have new types of minerals that scientists have not seen. For example, in 2011, researchers discovered and named a new mineral "Wassonite" after finding it in an old meteorite that fell in 1969. Wassonite, made of titanium and sulfur, also has a rare crystal structure scientists had not found in nature. The meteorite they recovered probably came from an asteroid that orbited between Jupiter and Mars.

Meteorite Hunting Tips

If you're lucky, you may stumble upon rocks you think could be meteorites. Randy Korotev, a geochemist at Washington University in St. Louis, offers tips on spotting them. He notes that a dark ash-like crust similar to an egg shell surrounds meteorites that fell recently. Over time the crust disappears. He also reports that a meteorite is generally smooth but "often has shallow depressions and deep cavities resembling clearly visible thumbprints in wet clay." Meteorites are also unusually dense and most of them are magnetic.

About the Author

After majoring in physics, Kevin Lee began writing professionally in 1989 when, as a software developer, he also created technical articles for the Johnson Space Center. Today this urban Texas cowboy continues to crank out high-quality software as well as non-technical articles covering a multitude of diverse topics ranging from gaming to current affairs.