Meteors attack! Six tales of impacts from above
Sunday, May 11, 2014, 5:27 PM - Whether you're a skywatcher or not, when space rocks roar through our atmosphere, it's hard not to notice, and this past week was an active one.
There was that fireball that streaked across the sky over southern Ontario, that brought to mind the meteor that exploded over Russia last year.
But while the Russian rock caused some damage when it blew, it would have been catastrophic if it had actually hit the Earth.
Which, ah, happens a bit more often than people might like. Below are just six space rocks that impacted our planet's surface, with effects ranging from reverence, to extinction.
The Carancas Impact, Peru
The people of the small Peruvian village of Carancas, near the border with Bolivia, must have thought they were under attack when this meteor streaked down from the sky and smashed into the area, leaving a 15-metre-wide crater.
The shockwave shattered windows, and debris was flung 250 m, damaging the roof of at least one building. You can glimpse the crater and damage in the first couple of minutes of this Latin American news report:
It must have seemed even worse when groundwater rushed into the six-metre-deep crater, began to boil, and emitted a noxious odour that made around 30 people ill.
Fortunately, it turned out it wasn’t a biological or chemical weapon attack. The meteorite blasted deep enough to reach an underground water deposit contaminated with natural arsenic, which evaporated into fumes laced with the stuff. The people who fell sick after approaching the crater were fine after a few days, and the force of the blast “only” came to the equivalent of four tonnes of TNT.
But it made scientists sit up and take notice, and not just for the explosion. The meteorite was mostly made up of rocky materials, and the conventional wisdom was that meteors of that kind under 100 m in size aren't large enough to survive intact all the way to the Earth’s surface. This one slammed into the ground at 24,000 km/h.
The new theory is that, rather than disintegrating and raining rock fragments over a wide area, the conditions were just right for the pieces of this meteor to stay together, and possibly even form a different, more aerodynamic shape on the way down.
If rocks that small (it was believed to have been around 1 m wide) can make it through our protective atmosphere, the risk and frequency of that happening may be higher than we thought…
Peekskill meteorite, New York
There are tons of videos of the Peekskill meteorite on YouTube, a major milestone in itself, given that its fiery passage through the sky was captured on film in the ancient days of 1992.
And we mean “on film” literally. The rock happened to make its appearance around high school football time, so no less than 16 recordings exist, submitted by amateur videographers at nighttime games from Ohio to South Carolina and New York.
You can clearly see the green-tinged fireball breaking into smaller chunks in some shots, but the parent rock is believed to have been up to a metre in diameter.
New York State, incidentally, was the most famous last stop of one of those fragments. At top speed, it was going at an estimated 52,000 km/h, but air friction drastically reduced that velocity by the time it made landfall near the home of the Knapp family.
Problem: Between it, and the ground, was the trunk of Michelle Knapp’s 1980 Chevrolet Malibu.
She found the fragment in a small impact crater beneath the car, but the vehicle itself was the real star from then on, and no wonder!
Knapp made a killing by selling the car, which she’d bought for $400, to the wife of a meteorite collector for a big mark-up of $10,000.
That collector, Allan Langheinrich, toured the car around museums across the United States, Europe and Japan, in the same condition it was when he first acquired it, dented trunk and all.
At last report, the world-famous “meteorite car” is part of the Macovich collection. Out of curiosity, we’d love to see the insurance bill if they ever try get it roadworthy again.
Hodges meteorite, Alabama
Ann Hodges was feeling a little under the weather when she decided to take a nap on her couch one day in Alabama’s Talladega County in 1954. But her plan to catch 40 winks was mercilessly crushed when a small meteorite smashed through her ceiling, grazing her hip and damaging her radio.
She didn’t now it then, but that meteorite would all but ruin her life.
After a geologist confirmed it was a meteorite, it was turned over to police, who passed it on to Air Force intelligence services. Once they’d confirmed its otherworldly status, they sent it to the Smithsonian. Who then refused to return it to Alabama, until a congressman intervened.
Then the real nightmare started for Hodges. The owner of the home she and her husband were renting, mindful of the repair bill, sued her for possession of the meteorite. The case went back and forth through the courts before Hodges ended up buying the very rock that smacked into her hip for the then-princely sum of $500.
And while all of this was going on, a massive media frenzy engulfed the Hodges, causing even more stress. Apparently unskilled in bargaining, they held out on selling the rock for the highest price for so long, interest ebbed away.
They ended up just donating it to a museum, but the ordeal had taken its toll. Both Ann and her husband cited the meteorite experience as a factor in ending their marriage when they divorced in the 1960s. She herself died of liver failure in 1972.
Incidentally, meteor showers seem to be part of Alabama’s heritage. One such, in 1833, entered state lore to the point where it inspired the jazz number “Stars over Alabama,” eventually covered by Frank Sinatra.
The first recording was in 1934, ten years before Hodges’ fateful encounter.
NEXT: The 1492 meteorite seen as a 'sign from God'
The Ensisheim meteorite, France
In 1492, Europe was still emerging from the Middle Ages, so when this meteor streaked across the sky to land in a field in Alsace, everyone there for sure thought it was a sign from God.
Spotted by a small boy in the nearby town of Ensisheim, it drew tons of people wishing to touch the supposedly holy relic (as well as chip off a piece of it for mementos), before the local authorities put a stop to it.
Incredibly, Maximilian I, co-ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, happened to be nearby, and went to see it (hey, wouldn’t you?). He had it taken to the nearby castle and, after consulting with his cohorts, declared it to be an omen, and that it would bring him luck in his wars against France and Turkey.
Although he was crowned sole ruler of the Holy Roman Empire the next year, his reign ended up being a mixed bag. But the date should be familiar to North Americans as the year Columbus landed in the Caribbean.
As for the stone itself, it’s on display in Ensisheim.
Maximilian initially had it put in a local parish church, secured to the wall with iron crampons, presumably to prevent it from flying back up into the heavens unexpectedly (meteor science was, ah, a little patchy back then).
Didn’t stop visitors from chipping off the occasional piece over the centuries. The stone was an estimated 127 kg after impact, but it’s down to around 56 kg now.
The Sudbury Basin, Ontario
If a mountain-sized meteor strikes Earth, whether we’re toast or blessed seems to depend on the timing.
Humanity wasn’t even close to being a twinkle in Evolution’s eye 1.8 billion years ago, when a space rock up to 20 km in size slammed into Northern Ontario, leaving a massive impact crater that is the world’s second largest.
It hit with what could have been a force as strong as billions of Hiroshimas, punching right through the Earth’s crust. The theory is that allowed bits of the metal-rich mantle to well up into the area, accounting for the huge deposits of nickel and copper that have made the region a byword for mineral wealth.
Known as the Sudbury Basin, the 65-kilometer crater lies within the city of Greater Sudbury.
The catastrophe may have held within it a greater gift: A shot in the arm for life on Earth. Research from last decade suggests the rock may have landed in an ocean, causing a tsunami a kilometre high and delivering huge quantities of oxygenated material, kicking the formation of life on Earth into overdrive.
The jury’s still out on that one. You can read a write-up of the theory at the Sudbury Star.
The One That Wiped Out the Dinosaurs
Everyone knows this one: The famous meteor that wiped out the mighty dinosaurs.
And it was a big one. Ten kilometres across, and hitting with the force of billions of tonnes of TNT, it kicked so much material up into the atmosphere it sparked a nuclear winter that lasted months or years.
The dinosaurs couldn’t handle it, dying in a drastically changed global landscape that would have also featured acid rain and world-wide wildfires – if they even survived the force of the impact.
That’s the lead theory, but if you have an image your head of dinosaurs thriving in a golden age of reptilia, that might not be accurate.
New evidence suggests the mass extinctions at the end of the Cretaceous era may actually have begun earlier than the impact, perhaps even hundreds of thousands of years earlier. Far from a species at its peak, the meteor may simply have been the nail in the coffin.
Another, less accepted theory is that the famous impact was hundreds of thousands of years too early – and another impact was what finished off the dinosaurs for good, whose crater has still never been found.
You can read up on that theory here, but whichever the final answer ends up being, the destructive power of the better-known meteor is certainly not in doubt.