Science, Maths & Technology

Meteorite - or Meteor-wrong?

Updated Monday 10th August 2015

There's a simple test which can tell if you've found a rock - or something extra-terrestrial, explains meteorite hunter Rob Elliott

Meteorites come in all shapes and sizes but the small pieces greatly outnumber the larger pieces. They are rarely much larger than a small melon, and with this in mind, you should keep your eyes trained for small rusty looking rocks, perhaps even down to pea-sized.

Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission
Rusty and still covered with mud, this little meteorite has been ground flaton one corner, exposing the bright flakes of metal mixed within the stone.Bright metal flakes are very often the key to identifying a newly found meteorite.

If using a meteorite cane, keep any rocks that easily cling to the magnet for inspection later, and remember where you found them – the location of a meteorite find is particularly important later, for mapping the meteorite "strewnfield".

Sadly, not all rocks that are drawn to a magnet will be true meteorites, and in some parts of the country, iron-rich basalt (a very common Earth rock) will cause many false alarms.

Once you have your finds safely back home, you can run some quick and easy tests yourself to check if any of them are meteorite candidates:

  • The magnet test: A true meteorite will show a reasonably strong attraction to a magnet.
  • The streak test: Take an unused ceramic tile and scratch the rock sample vigorously against the reverse, unglazed side of the tile.

If the sample leaves a dark grey streak like a lead pencil, the rock is probably magnetite (a common meteor-wrong).

If the sample leaves a reddish brown streak, then the rock is probably hematite (another common meteor-wrong).

A true meteorite will leave only a faint streak from it's rusty surface, and little more than that.

  • The grinding test: This is one of the most definitive first-stage tests for identifying a stony meteorite. Use a file to grind flat one of the corners of the rock. Meteorites are tough, so you may need some elbow grease and lots of patience here!

    Don't worry about damaging your possible meteorite or reducing its value at all – cutting and grinding is a very necessary part of early meteorite identification.

    Wipe off the dust from the ground-off area and look inside the rock. A plain and featureless texture suggests that it's just another Earthly meteor-wrong, but if you can see small, bright flakes of shiny metal mixed within the stone, it probably is a meteorite. Keep it a dry as possible and avoid handling it too much until it can be professionally authenticated.

 

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?

Other content you may like

A natural history glossary Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC article icon

Nature & Environment 

A natural history glossary

An A to Z of key terms in natural history

Article
People Like Me: Nizar Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC article icon

Science, Maths & Technology 

People Like Me: Nizar

Who studies science? We talk to students and graduates - and meet Nizar

Article
The Balakot Earthquake: Ten years on Creative commons image Icon Ejaz Asi under CC-BY-NC licence under Creative-Commons license article icon

Science, Maths & Technology 

The Balakot Earthquake: Ten years on

Earlier this week, parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan were hit by a large earthquake. By coincidence, it's ten years since Balakot in Pakistan was devastated by an earlier quake. Michael Semple recently revisited the town to see how, even years later, the community remains in recovery mode.

Article
Mountain building in Scotland Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission free course icon Level 3 icon

Science, Maths & Technology 

Mountain building in Scotland

Some of Britain's most dramatic scenery is to be found in the Scottish Highlands. The sight of mighty Ben Nevis, the desolate plateau of the Cairngorms, or the imposing landscapes of Glen Coe can unleash the call of the wild in all of us. Although these landforms were largely carved by glacial activity that ended some 10,000 years ago, the rocks themselves tell of a much older history. The Highlands are merely eroded stumps of a much higher range of ancient mountains. This free course, Mountain building in Scotland, is an account of the origin and demise of that ancient mountain range, based on the geological evidence laid before us in rock exposures.

Free course
30 hrs
Geology toolkit: UK rocks by region Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC activity icon

Science, Maths & Technology 

Geology toolkit: UK rocks by region

Use the Geology Toolkit to discover the UK's rocks, region by region

Activity
Tym the Trilobite Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission article icon

Science, Maths & Technology 

Tym the Trilobite

How better to understand what fossils can tell us than by listening to one's inner thoughts? Meet Tym the Trilobite.

Article
Samoan tsunami Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Dreamstime article icon

Science, Maths & Technology 

Samoan tsunami

Dave Rothery looks at the cause of the tsunami that struck Samoa in September 2009

Article
Landscape features: Just the facts Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC article icon

Science, Maths & Technology 

Landscape features: Just the facts

Take a journey around Britain and discover some of our fascinating geology. For a richer experience, you can explore with our interactive Geology Toolkit.

Article
article icon

Science, Maths & Technology 

Market Rasen earthquake

Dave Rothery reports on a surprising earthquake in Lincolnshire and the possibility of a supervolcano eruption in the Yellowstone Park.

Article