Most people are familiar with the term “shooting star,” but few know its importance. Actually, it is not a star shooting across the sky, but a small piece of solid matter called a meteoroid colliding with the atmosphere. As the meteoroid enters the Earth’s atmosphere, the friction created by its incoming velocity causes its surface to heat up and the brilliant flash of light records the passage of a meteor. Should the object survive this fiery plunge through the atmosphere and hit the ground, it then becomes a meteorite. On very rare occasions when an extremely bright meteor is observed, it is referred to as a fireball. It is from these fireballs that most meteorites of recoverable size originate. The arrival of a meteorite is a very unpredictable event. Meteor showers are regular annual occurrences but have never produced a recorded meteorite fall. When a large fireball is observed, recovery of specimens is almost solely dependent upon the accounts of chance observers who just happened to see the event. Even rarer is the observed impact of a meteorite on someone’s roof or in a backyard. Meteorites recovered in this manner are termed falls, indicating that the specimen was observed while falling. The majority of meteorites are recorded as finds, those specimens that were not observed to fall. Finds are generally reported by people who happen to pick up a strange looking rock and later have it identified as an actual meteorite.

Meteors and meteorite fall are often spellbinding, producing spectacular visual and audible effects when they occur. Meteorites, even when they are not seen to fall, are tantalizing specimens because they represent extraterrestrial material, which traveled hundreds of millions of billions of kilometers, over a period of 4.5 billion years, in orbit around the sun before colliding with the Earth. Because the stones are fragments of other planetary bodies (mostly asteroids,) some more primitive than the Earth, they have helped guide our search for the origin and evolution of our solar system.

Although today we understand that meteors and meteorite falls are natural consequences of solar system processes, in the past they were poorly understood phenomena, having been attributed to divine intervention by some authorities and denied by others who suspected the descriptions of falling stones were caused by mass hysteria. Because of the mystery in which meteorites were shrouded, many exaggerated stories were developed and recorded. For example, one of the earliest reports states that while the people in the city of Moons, Belgium were recovering from a war in 1186, “God chastised them again by a hail of stones which fell June 30th, whose size surpassed that of an egg and weighed more than one pound, this furious storm pushed by the wind, damaged all of the harvest, blasted the buildings (as with lightning), crushed the animals, uprooted the trees and killed a quantity of men.” This report is generally considered to be a doubtful description of a meteorite shower by modern authorities, but it nonetheless illustrates the legendary nature of meteorite falls. In other (substantiated) cases, meteorites were considered religious objects and have been preserved in churches, monasteries, temples, shrines, and burial chambers on most continents, including North America.