Exploradio Origins: Meteorites and Bigger Things to Come

Oct 4, 2018

"Meteorites are delivered to us free of charge," says Ralph Harvey, a professor in the department of Earth, environmental, and planetary science at Case Western Reserve University.

Ralph Harvey kneels beside a large meteorite found on the Antarctic ice sheet in December 2003.
Credit CARI CORRIGAN / ANSMET

"Yes, they’re delivered randomly. Yes we have to go pick them up in weird places, but the value of them as specimens is not diminished," says Harvey.

Harvey uses meteorites, rocks that have fallen to earth from space, to study the small, seriously weird asteroids they came from.

"We really don’t know how sticky that stuff is, and the reason that matters is that there are literally ten million or more little tiny asteroids out there that are flying around. They're almost impossible to see, and yet they pose a significant threat to the earth," Harvey says.   

...there are literally ten million or more little tiny asteroids out there that are flying around. They're almost impossible for us to see, and yet they pose a significant threat to the earth.

Though small, they have enough mass to cause considerable damage if they hit the Earth’s atmosphere.

Harvey and his team have been funded by the NASA Glenn Research Center and NASA’s planetary defense initiative to study near-earth objects like these small asteroids.

"These things are so small that gravity not only doesn’t matter very much but it isn’t the strongest force," Harvey says. "The stronger forces are things like static cling. Those forces are bigger than gravity, so our intuition about bodies kind of holding themselves together kind of go away."

By studying the pieces that land on Earth, Harvey and his team can start formulating an idea of how these things move, hold themselves together, and one day, may be defended against.