Peruvian Meteorite

Fireball; Credit Hiroyuki Iida of Toyama, JapanLast September a rather large meterorite left a 49 foot crater near the village of Carancas in southern Peru.  Initial eye witness reports were so fantastic that they caused skeptics to question nearly every aspect of the event.  People were taken sick, and a bright fireball was seen, but some thought it must have been a large aircraft that crash landed there, or some sort of volcanic event that spewed gaseous fumes into the atmosphere, that made the locals ill.

Initial suspicions of an airplane crash quickly spiraled into widespread reports that a meteorite had plummeted to Earth and left a smoking, boiling crater whose supposedly noxious fumes were reported to have sickened curious locals who went to peer at the hole. Despite doubts expressed by geologists that the crater was actually caused by a meteorite and firm explanations that a meteorite would not even emit fumes and that the “sickness” was likely a case of mass hysteria, numerous onlookers far and wide were fascinated by the idea that this event could be some real-life “Andromeda Strain” (the 1969 novel by Michael Crichton), where a mysterious rock falling to Earth from outerspace made anyone who went near it ill.

Some thought it was a fake, but no, it was quite real.

Jose Mechare, a scientist with Peru’s Geological, Mining and Metallurgical Institute, said a geologist had confirmed that it was a “rocky meteorite,” based on the fragments analyzed. [However, an expert on meteorites told SPACE.com that for a small object like this to reach the surface, it would have to be an iron meteorite, not the stony variety.]

He said water in the meteorite’s muddy crater boiled for maybe 10 minutes from the heat and could have given off a vapor that sickened people, and scientists were taking water samples.

That’s an interesting point.  You see, up until now, it had been “understood” (scare quotes intended) that a stoney meter was too fragile to make it all the way through the atmosphere intact, and make it to the surface in one piece.  Only an iron meter could/would survive that trip.  The villagers were consistent in describing the event – whatever it was fell to the ground in one piece (or at least, very few pieces).  And Jose Mechare, the Peruvian geologist, left no doubt that he found the shattered remains of a stoney meteorite in the hole, which is now a nice, 49 foot wide, 15 foot deep pond.

Peter Schultz, a Brown University planetary geologist who visited the sight along with Peruvian scientists and officials, presented his findings to the 39th annual Lunar and Planetary Science Converence in League City, Texas.

The upshot is that this stoney meter slammed into Earth at 15000 mph, barely slowed by the atmosphere.  Perhaps it was needle shaped and therefore suffered little atmospheric drag, but that’s not clear.

“Essentially Carancas threw us this high-speed curveball,” Schultz told SPACE.com. “The mystery is why it didn’t slow down and how did it make it all the way to the Earth intact to form a crater? These are questions we have to resolve.”

Now we have to ask ourselves how many ponds, which we thought were formed by natural erosion, have really been formed by the crash of a meteorite?  Few?  Many?

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