When a fragment of interplanetary dust strikes Earth’s atmosphere, it burns up to create a meteor. Streams of dust particles traveling through space together produce meteor showers, in which we see meteors diverging from a spot in the sky called the radiant of the shower. Many meteor showers recur each year and are associated with particular comets that have left dust behind as they come close to the Sun and their ices evaporate (or have broken up into smaller pieces).
Meteorites are the debris from space (mostly asteroid fragments) that survive to reach the surface of Earth. Meteorites are called finds or falls according to how they are discovered; the most productive source today is the Antarctic ice cap. Meteorites are classified as irons, stony-irons, or stones accordingly to their composition. Most stones are primitive objects, dated to the origin of the solar system 4.5 billion years ago. The most primitive are the carbonaceous meteorites, such as Murchison and Allende. These can contain a number of organic (carbon-rich) molecules.
A viable theory of solar system formation must take into account motion constraints, chemical constraints, and age constraints. Meteorites, comets, and asteroids are survivors of the solar nebula out of which the solar system formed. This nebula was the result of the collapse of an interstellar cloud of gas and dust, which contracted (conserving its angular momentum) to form our star, the Sun, surrounded by a thin, spinning disk of dust and vapor. Condensation in the disk led to the formation of planetesimals, which became the building blocks of the planets. Accretion of infalling materials heated the planets, leading to their differentiation. The giant planets were also able to attract and hold gas from the solar nebula. After a few million years of violent impacts, most of the debris was swept up or ejected, leaving only the asteroids and cometary remnants surviving to the present.
The first planet circling a distant solar-type star was announced in 1995. Twenty years later, thousands of exoplanets have been identified, including planets with sizes and masses between Earth’s and Neptune’s, which we don’t have in our own solar system. A few percent of exoplanet systems have “hot Jupiters,” massive planets that orbit close to their stars, and many exoplanets are also in eccentric orbits. These two characteristics are fundamentally different from the attributes of gas giant planets in our own solar system and suggest that giant planets can migrate inward from their place of formation where it is cold enough for ice to form. Current data indicate that small (terrestrial type) rocky planets are common in our Galaxy; indeed, there must be tens of billions of such earthlike planets.
After their common beginning, each of the planets evolved on its own path. Different possible outcomes are illustrated by comparison of the terrestrial planets (Earth, Venus, Mars, Mercury, and the Moon). All are rocky, differentiated objects. The level of geological activity is proportional to mass: greatest for Earth and Venus, less for Mars, and absent for the Moon and Mercury. However, tides from another nearby world can also generate heat to drive geological activity, as shown by Io, Europa, and Enceladus. Pluto is also active, to the surprise of planetary scientists. On the surfaces of solid worlds, mountains can result from impacts, volcanism, or uplift. Whatever their origin, higher mountains can be supported on smaller planets that have less surface gravity. The atmospheres of the terrestrial planets may have acquired volatile materials from comet impacts. The Moon and Mercury lost their atmospheres; most volatiles on Mars are frozen due to its greater distance from the Sun and its thinner atmosphere; and Venus retained CO2 but lost H2O when it developed a massive greenhouse effect. Only Earth still has liquid water on its surface and hence can support life.