Hit by a Falling Star

by Paul Gilster on August 9, 2012

About a year ago a French couple by the name of Comette returned to their home to find that a meteorite had struck their house while they were away on holiday. It could be said that the Comettes already had a celestial connection — if in name only — but now the heavens impinged upon their lives again, a fact they didn’t realize until their roof began to leak. Living in Draveil, about 12 miles south of Paris, the couple discovered that the space rock had blown right through a thick tile and wedged itself in glass wool insulation. It turns out to be an iron-rich chondrite some 4.57 billion years old.

France, according to this article in The Telegraph, receives the highest number of meteorites per capita in the world, and the Comettes have no intention of parting with this one. The story reminded me of 14-year old Gerrit Blank, who was hit on the hand by a red-hot piece of rock about the size of a pea that went on to create a foot-wide crater in the ground. This was back in 2009 in Essen, Germany, and young Gerrit is doing just fine. I have no idea what the odds of being hit in a meteor strike are, much less of surviving one, but Gerrit now sports a three-inch scar on his hand that will be fodder for countless stories down the line.

Addendum: See the comments below — the Blank story is evidently a fabrication, as I learned after writing this.

Image: A meteor burning up in the atmosphere during the annual Perseid meteor shower, as seen by astronaut Ron Garan aboard the ISS in 2011. Credit: Ron Garan/NASA.

Celestial objects that hit our planet have also been on the mind of students at the University of Leicester, who have gone to work on the 1998 film Armageddon, in which Bruce Willis drills into an Earth-bound asteroid and detonates a nuclear device that splits the object in half. The planet is saved from destruction by this act as the remaining fragments are diverted. What the students were able to demonstrate was that Willis’ method wouldn’t have worked, not unless he had a bomb about a billion times stronger than anything ever detonated on Earth.

The Soviet Union’s ‘Big Ivan,’ says this University of Leicester news release, wouldn’t have stood any chance of splitting an asteroid with the properties described in the film. It turns out that 800 trillion terajoules of energy are needed to split the asteroid and drive its pieces away from our planet, while the total energy output of the Soviet blockbuster was 418,000 terajoules.

So much for Bruce Willis. Moreover, the students found that the asteroid would have had to be split very early in the process, almost immediately after it could have been detected. Now that’s a scenario I can work with — early detection is crucial because you have to allow time to get to the object in question, not to mention deploying whatever threat mitigation tools you bring with you. In the case of Armageddon, the depicted asteroid would surely have struck our planet because we lack the ability to see it soon enough or get to it fast enough.

The papers on this work were published in the University of Leicester Journal of Special Physics Topics and are accessible here. The journal comes out once a year and contains papers written in the final year of the students’ Master of Physics degree, so it serves as training for those planning to become actively involved in scientific publishing. In this case, the idea of taking a popular film and asking whether its science is valid is an excellent corrective. After all, movies like Armageddon reach huge audiences, but all too often contain scientific errors that compromise the story, even if a forgiving audience is ready to overlook them.

But back to smaller celestial debris. Back in 1954, a fragment the size of a grapefruit blasted through the roof of a house in Sylacauga, Alabama, eventually landing — after bouncing off a console radio — upon one Ann Elizabeth Hodges, who was asleep on her living room sofa. Until Gerrit Blank came on the scene, I’m aware of no one else being struck by a meteorite. Remarkably, the Hodges’ rented white-frame house was across the road from the Comet Drive-In Theater, which featured a neon sign showing a comet streaking through the heavens. The meteorite fragment is now found at the Alabama Museum of Natural History in Tuscaloosa.

All of which leads me to note that the Perseid meteors should be turning up late Saturday night and early Sunday morning (August 11-12). Alan MacRobert, a senior editor for Sky & Telescope, says that while the Perseids seem to emanate from the constellation Perseus, they can flash into view almost anywhere as long as the constellation is above the horizon. “So,” says MacRobert, “the best part [of] the sky to watch is wherever is darkest, probably straight up.” And don’t be too concerned about becoming the next Gerrit Blank — the Perseids are pieces of Comet Swift-Tuttle and are more like clumps of dust than lumps of rock and iron.

tzf_img_post

Tom Mazanec August 9, 2012 at 10:34

I seem to recall a boy in Africa who was struck by a meteorite about 5 or 10 years ago. It hit a tree above him first, taking some of the energy out of it, or he could have been seriously hurt.

ljk August 9, 2012 at 12:25

Supposedly this little piece of Mars hit and killed a dog in Egypt in 1911 (what are the odds…):

http://www2.jpl.nasa.gov/snc/nakhla.html

Here is a whole list of people throughout history having been killed and injured by meteorites, with most of them being quite questionable:

http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2008/06/reported-deaths.html

I wonder how many people were actually killed by the Tunguska Event of 1908? Yes it happened in a very remote part of Earth, but there were still people in the vicinity. No doubt it may be impossible to ever know for certain.

And then one hit a car in 1992 and became famous:

http://www.nyrockman.com/peekskill.htm

ljk August 9, 2012 at 12:38

Armageddon was definitely a pile of horse manure all around, especially when it came to the science. Glad to see that someone has now done the math to prove it.

At least the other giant space rock threatens to destroy Earth film of 1998, Deep Impact, was far better by comparison. I have labeled it Armageddon for intelligent grownups. Not perfect, of course, but someone in Hollywood actually did do their homework for a change.

http://www.deepimpactmovie.com/

Oh but who could forget the 1979 disaster flick Meteor!, which at least had the decency to mention Spaceguard at the end.

http://space1970.blogspot.com/2012/07/coming-attractions-meteor-1979.html

Just remember, kids, if you happen to be flying through interplanetary space in a replica of the Skylab space station which you also happened to name Challenger 2, do NOT get too close to the big planetoid that is about to be hit by a comet no matter how cool that would be to observe!

Peter C. Chapin August 9, 2012 at 12:51

For what it’s worth the Wikipedia article here : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gerrit_Blank claims that the Garrit Blank incident is a hoax. In fact the description of the incident given in that article is highly suspicious for various reasons as outlined in the article. For example the article states, “The schoolboy claimed that he saw a bright streak of light heading towards him.” That claim sounds wrong right away. If the object was directly approaching him at supersonic speed (as would be necessary to create a crater) it would appear as a dot in the sky, or nearly so, and not a streak.

I’ve actually seen meteors that look like that. During the Geminid shower one year I noticed a star-like flash that appeared almost exactly at the location of the Geminid radiant. I realized that I was seeing a meteor that was approach me directly which, thankfully, was consumed by the Earth’s atmosphere before it reached the ground where I was standing.

Jeff Aziz August 9, 2012 at 14:03

Sorry, Paul, but I believe that Gerrit Blank’s claim has been discredited (you can see problems in the story itself: such a small meteorite would have cooled by the time it reached the ground, and would never have had the sort of kinetic energy necessary to create a crater). Let me mention that I am devoted to your site. Thanks.

Mike August 9, 2012 at 14:49

Speaking of fallen stars, Sir Bernard Lovell, a pioneer of radio astronomy died on August 6th, just a few weeks shy of his 99th birthday. A giant in British radio astronomy, he established the famous Jodrell Bank radio telescope, which is still in operation.
Wikipedia has a good write up of Sir Bernard Lovell and his work including a list of some of the many papers and books he published. It’s quite a list.
I hope Paul will forgive my off-topic posting.

Richard Prichard August 9, 2012 at 14:58

The interesting coincidences between individuals and their meteorite events border on synchronicity – order not arising from cause and effect, but from meaning. I recently observed a synchronicity at my art installation at Prototopia. A visitor from San Francisco was startled when she looked at the clock on the 14 foot clockodile and realized that its time was stopped at 11:43; the same time her watch had stopped at 3 days before. Even more amazing, her wrist watch had a crocodile ikon on it. A picture of her watch and the clockodile are at my facebook page:
http://www.facebook.com/richard.prichard.77

Paul Gilster August 9, 2012 at 15:28

Thanks to those who’ve pointed out that the Gerrit Blank story has been discredited, which I hadn’t realized! Here’s The Telegraph‘s story on Blank:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/space/5511619/14-year-old-hit-by-30000-mph-space-meteorite.html

now evidently considered fallacious.

Bounty August 9, 2012 at 18:49

Isn’t that about the size of Pluto? Not sure “asteroid” is a good description of an object 1000 km across made of iron. I haven’t seen the movie, but I did look at part of the script dealing with it’s size, and from the description of the damage they projected it to do later in the next scene, “The size of Texas” was an intentional exaggeration said to make sure they knew it was big. Not an actual description of it’s size.

Like the BLT I just ate for lunch, it was the size of Texas. I still ate it though. Now lets see the papers on that. It’s pretty sad when a bunch of math guys don’t understand slang, then do a whole paper because the missed it.

Eniac August 9, 2012 at 23:31

Bounty is right, Back et al apparently assume an “asteroid” literally the size of Texas, or 1000 km across. Then they proceed:

Although it is admitted that our estimation
of the density and size of the asteroid may
have been overestimated, those changes are
unlikely to reduce the result by more than 2
orders of magnitude, most likely a little over 1
order, [...]

From what I have been hearing an asteroid just 1 km across made of iron would be quite sufficient to wreak havoc on Earth, and that comes out to 9 orders of magnitude (mass is cube of radius). Not 1 or 2. Incidentally, 9 orders is just what is missing for H-bombs to be effective, showing that they very well may be.

This is quite enough for me to rank the reference just barely above the movie itself in terms of scientific accuracy, let’s just call it a fluke and move on.

James Jason Wentworth August 10, 2012 at 3:40

I worked at the Miami Space Transit Planetarium from 1989 to 1993. One evening when I was volunteering at the Southern Cross Observatory on the roof of the adjacent Miami Museum of Science, Janis Harper (the Associate Director) came upstairs wearing a puzzled expression. When I asked her what was up, she said that they had received a call from a man (who had been referred to the planetarium by the fire department) who said that “a frozen pink meteorite had crashed through the ceiling of his and his wife’s home and landed in their baby’s crib, and was melting there.” Then:

Later that night, the source of this colorful impactor was identified: the leaky bathroom plumbing of a jet airliner that landed at Miami International Airport that evening (the couple’s home was located under one of the landing approach paths). The story made the 11:00 o’clock PM local TV news, and the “meteorite” was shown to have been large enough to wrap one’s arms around. Had the couple’s baby been in the crib (which was damaged pretty badly by the impact), it would *not* have been a cute human-interest story…

Denver August 10, 2012 at 6:08

For a decent treatment of bolides in fiction, see Niven and Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer. These august gentlemen are working on a sequel tentatively titled, Lucifer’s Anvil. More fun surfing the tsunami. http://www.jerrypournelle.com/chaosmanor/?p=3458

ljk August 10, 2012 at 9:43

Do not try to excuse Armageddon, Bounty. It was a terrible film on every level: It was an insult to one’s intelligence, taste, and the Russians. Even its value as pure entertainment is ruined if you know anything about science or how a space mission and its technology actually function.

As someone on my Facebook page said in my link to this CD article, Bruce Willis may not have been able to split that “Texas” sized planetoid (or comet?), but Chuck Norris could have. :^) Now that I believe. Unless you saw him get his butt kicked by Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon.

ljk August 10, 2012 at 11:17

Denver said on August 10, 2012 at 6:08:

“For a decent treatment of bolides in fiction, see Niven and Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer. These august gentlemen are working on a sequel tentatively titled, Lucifer’s Anvil. More fun surfing the tsunami.”

My problem with Lucifer’s Hammer was not the science in it, but the way the characters were portrayed. As is wont with Pournelle in particular, most of the “good” guys and gals who survived the impact and its aftermath were conservative white folks who wanted to rebuild society while the minorities were largely thieves and cannibals.

I have the feeling that should Earth ever be hit for real by a major space rock, the playing field of survivors will be pretty level in all senses of the word, regardless of their backgrounds.

ljk August 10, 2012 at 11:58

Richard Prichard said on August 9, 2012 at 14:58:

“The interesting coincidences between individuals and their meteorite events border on synchronicity – order not arising from cause and effect, but from meaning. I recently observed a synchronicity at my art installation at Prototopia. A visitor from San Francisco was startled when she looked at the clock on the 14 foot clockodile and realized that its time was stopped at 11:43; the same time her watch had stopped at 3 days before. Even more amazing, her wrist watch had a crocodile ikon on it. A picture of her watch and the clockodile are at my facebook page:
http://www.facebook.com/richard.prichard.77

Richard, you and that visitor should definitely read the book Sync by Steven Strogatz:

http://www.news.cornell.edu/releases/March03/SYNC.Strogatz.lh.deb.html

http://www.ted.com/talks/steven_strogatz_on_sync.html

http://www.stevenstrogatz.com/

Many events and patterns we see in everyday life that many attribute to some outside intelligent force have another yet no less interesting answer.

NS August 10, 2012 at 12:53

I don’t know if this meteor story was ever verified:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/2218755.stm

Sputnik Wrangler August 10, 2012 at 17:23

> a man [...] who said that “a frozen pink meteorite had crashed through
> the ceiling of his and his wife’s home and landed in their baby’s crib,
> [...]
> Later that night, the source of this colorful impactor was identified:
> the leaky bathroom plumbing of a jet airliner that landed at Miami
> International Airport that evening (the couple’s home was located
> under one of the landing approach paths).

Proving once again that even if you don’t live in a strategic area, you can still be attacked by an ICBM.

Rob Henry August 10, 2012 at 18:06

The amazingly poor scientific accuracy in Armageddon brings an important point. If the film makers had consulted any 15 year old that was top of their class of 20 odd kids in general science, at least half their errors could have been picked up. So my question is as follows.

Do the general public ignore the science they learn at school as soon as they leave? Do the ever associate that knowledge with the real world when they do learn it, in the same way as say, history? Alternatively, are the people making and watching these films suspending their knowledge because they think that science fiction is the same genre as fantasy?

And, while I’m in complaining mode… about that “size of Texas” comment. American books designed for the world’s general public have the habit of describing anything very large in terms of the American state that is closest to its size, rather than giving actual figures. That irritating trait is hard to forget to we non-Americans, and thus is also first to my mind upon hearing the “size of Texas” phrase.

Eniac August 11, 2012 at 0:22

The fact remains that, according to Back et al’s calculations, a hydrogen bomb is indeed sufficient to deflect a 1 km (a few billion ton) asteroid. even at the assumed short notice. That seems rather comforting, or not?

James Jason Wentworth August 11, 2012 at 3:15

Sputnik Wrangler wrote (in response to the “pink meteorite” incident):

“Proving once again that even if you don’t live in a strategic area, you can still be attacked by an ICBM.”

Good one! I’m glad I wasn’t drinking my tea at the computer when I read that. :-)

A. A. Jackson August 11, 2012 at 19:04

@ljk
The Nakhla meteorite (martian meteorite!) is a strange story. Wikipedia lists it as apocryphal. However when I was doing interplanetary dust dynamics for a remarkable planetary scientist , Herb Zook, at JSC, he said he felt a dog was conked by one.
Herb was an expert in meteorites (whole group at JSC, since it is a curatorial facility for a lot of Antarctic meteorites ) , told me in his accumulated knowledge there was no recorded verifiable historical record of someone killed by one. (Lord know in non-recorded history!)

On Tunguska, I had a chance to study Leonid Kulik’s investigations once (for reasons that made me infamous). Kulik was the first and probably best investigator on the Tunguska event, and he could not turn up any evidence of anyone being killed.
The closest trading post, Vanavara is 65 km from the event site.
Kulik interviewed a number of the native Evenks who do some rain-deer herding closer in, but none of them said they knew of any casualties… tho they did report a herd of rain-deer were killed.
So one dog and maybe a bunch of rain-deer.

One odd thing, the flux of small meteorites onto the Earth’s surface is surprisingly (so to speak) large:

The Flux of Meteorites to the Earth Over the Last 40,000 Years
Bland, P. A.; Smith, T. B.; Berry, F. J.; Pillinger, C. T.
Meteoritics, vol. 30, no. 5, page 488

Yet we don’t hear em bonking off our roofs that often, I think this paper computes the probability of being nearby to a strike.

James Jason Wentworth August 12, 2012 at 1:34

Eniac wrote:

“The fact remains that, according to Back et al’s calculations, a hydrogen bomb is indeed sufficient to deflect a 1 km (a few billion ton) asteroid. even at the assumed short notice. That seems rather comforting, or not?”

Indeed. It is comforting to have, in principle, a possible short-notice method for deflecting asteroids. For the long-notice case, in which the “gravity tractor” method should be effective, perhaps it could be tested (to gain experience and confidence for operational uses) by placing such a spacecraft into orbit around Phobos or Deimos. Since the parameters of the Martian moons’ orbits are known quite well, even tiny changes in their orbits that were caused by gravity tractor spacecraft should be detectable.

Eniac August 12, 2012 at 23:36

I have never understood the fascination with the “gravity tractor” thing. It seems much more effective to just set the rocket down on the surface and direct it upwards. If the asteroid is spinning, put it at the pole, or direct the rocket so that it counteracts the spin. This should permit much higher thrust than the really tiny gravitational attraction that we are talking about with the tractor.

A little more complicated, but much more effective would be to set up a rotating sling on the asteroid and fling rocks from it at a good clip. ~2km/s should be readily achievable. The lack of higher Isp is amply compensated by the much greater availability of reaction mass, which would be pieces of the asteroid itself. Solar power could be used very efficiently to drive such a sling. It is also pretty low tech, what you need is solar panels, an electric motor, and a long cable. You use the motor to rotate the cable end over end, and use a conveyor (buckets on a rope?) to transport rocks from the stationary hub to the fast moving tips, where they are simply let go. Most of the hardware for this could probably be picked up at the local amusement park. The hard part is assembling it all in a rather inaccessible location, plus digging up the rocks. Perhaps Bruce Willis could help out here…

Rob Henry August 13, 2012 at 19:41

Eniac, I am wondering if your meteorite deflection scheme would take more development than you think. At my first glance, it seems as if the shock waves from rock release transmitted through the tether looks as if they have great potential to destroy the bearings, unless this whole setup is exceedingly well designed.

Eniac August 13, 2012 at 21:55

@Rob, Depending on the length of the sling, the “shock-waves” need not be much worse than those going up a rope with a rock dropping from it in normal gravity. My gut feeling says this would not be much of a problem, especially if the rocks are small and many.

Mickail Weidner August 14, 2012 at 11:33

very impressive picture thanks for that!

ljk January 24, 2013 at 10:31

23 January 2013

** Contact information appears below. **

Text & Images:

http://www.txstate.edu/news/news_releases/news_archive/2013/January-2013/Meteors012313.html

CELESTIAL SLEUTHS TRACK HISTORIC METEOR PROCESSION TO SOUTH ATLANTIC

A century ago, one of the most spectacular astronomical sights ever recorded lit up the skies when a grand procession of meteors blazed their way through the Earth’s atmosphere. The event made headlines from Toronto to Pennsylvania and New York, and in the days that followed eyewitness reports poured in from as far away as Western Canada and Bermuda.

Now, on the 100th anniversary of the historic event, astronomers Don Olson of Texas State University and Steve Hutcheon of the Astronomical Association of Queensland, Australia, have answered a long-forgotten call for more information from the pages of the science journal Nature, establishing a far greater range for the great fireball procession than previously known.

Olson and Hutcheon publish their findings in the February 2013 issue of Sky & Telescope magazine, on newsstands now.

A meteor procession occurs when an Earth-grazing meteor breaks up upon entering the atmosphere, creating multiple meteors traveling in nearly identical paths. Instead of plunging down through the atmosphere and burning up within a second or two, as often observed in normal meteor showers, the fireballs in meteor processions travel almost horizontally, nearly parallel to the Earth’s surface. Each member of a meteor procession can remain visible to a single observer for about a minute, and the entire procession can take several minutes to pass by.

On the evening of Feb. 9, 1913, the dazzling procession of meteors crossed over Canada and the northeastern United States traveling northwest to southeast. University of Toronto astronomer Clarence A. Chant collected accounts from the astonished eyewitnesses and summarized, “To most observers the outstanding feature of the phenomenon was the slow, majestic motion of the bodies; and almost equally remarkable was the perfect formation which they retained.” Hundreds of meteors were observed as far west as Saskatchewan, Canada, around 7 p.m. Mountain time, and as far east as Bermuda at around 10 p.m. Atlantic time, a distance of more than 2,400 miles. In the years that followed, additional reports from a town in Alberta, Canada, and a ship off the coast of Brazil extended the confirmed range of the meteor procession to more than 6,000 miles.

Writing about the procession in Nature in 1916, William F. Denning observed that “Such an extended trajectory is without parallel in this branch of astronomy. Further reports from navigators in the South Atlantic Ocean might show that the observed flight was even greater.” Later in 1916 Denning observed in the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada that, according to the most distant ship sighting known to him, the meteors “were still going strongly . and may have pursued their luminous career far southwards over the South Atlantic Ocean, but navigators alone, during morning watches, can give us further information on the subject.”

Olson and Hutcheon responded to the call for observations nearly a century later. Sifting through a vast array of archival material, the team discovered seven ship reports, all previously unknown, extending the established track of the procession by an additional thousand miles.

“We had the most wonderful help from U.K. and German archives. By the time they were finished, the German archivists had found six reports and the U.K. archivists had located one more,” Olson said. “We have seven new accounts from ships’ meteorological log books that extend the track farther than ever before. This is the most complete map for this phenomenon that’s ever been compiled.

“The track now goes more than 7,000 miles — that’s more than a quarter of the way around the world,” he said. “That’s an almost unbelievable meteor event!”

The search was complicated by several factors. One was that by the time the meteors crossed all the time zones from Western Canada to reach the ships in the South Atlantic, it was after midnight and therefore the relevant local date was Feb. 10. Additionally, the Earth continued to rotate beneath the meteor procession, effectively moving the track farther west than expected if it were a simple great circle arc. But after an extended search, the seven ships in the South Atlantic off the Brazilian coast turned up to provide valuable data reporting the event.

“This is the most complete map ever drawn of the ground track of the procession. The known ground track is now more than 7,000 miles long,” Olson said. “The seven ship accounts are all newly-discovered for this article. The archivists helped us to find new information about one of the greatest meteor events.”

Unfortunately, the ultimate fate of the spectacular meteor procession will likely never be known.

“They disappeared into the really obscure South Atlantic, outside of the well-traveled shipping lanes,” Olson said. “We would like to locate more reports, but we’ve had no luck so far finding accounts from Brazil, islands in the South Atlantic, South Africa and Australia. But the procession was still going strong when seen by the last ship.”

Contact:

Jayme Blaschke
+1 (512) 245-2180
jb71@txstate.edu

Comments on this entry are closed.