Meteorite

 

(This 866th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on October 28, 2007.)

 

Peruvian Meteorite Crater

 

One of my favorite short stories is James Thurber's "The Luck of Jad Peters." Peters is a kind of small town ne'er-do-well, who loves to tell how fortunate he is. He just missed sailing on a ship that was lost with all hands; something told him not to visit the lumberyard on the day the wood collapsed, injuring an employee; and so on. But after years of telling these tales, one day he is walking down the street when a rock, thrown by a far off dynamite blast, strikes him and kills him. This time Peter's luck took its toll.

 

I thought of that story when I read of an event that took place near Carancas, Peru on September 15. Carancas is a sparsely populated village near Lake Titicaca on the Peruvian border with Bolivia.

 

Many villagers saw a bright orange fireball streaking across the sky and then heard a loud boom when it crashed to earth. That noise was heard fifteen miles away and windows were shattered in the local health center a half mile from the impact.

 

Local people first thought that the source of the sound was an airplane crash and rushed to the crash site. Instead of airplane wreckage they found an impact crater about 40 feet across and 30 feet deep. It was rapidly filling with boiling water that sent up a cloud of extremely smelly steam.

 

Scientists who visited the scene later identified the object that had slammed into the earth as a meteorite only about the size of a basketball. They suggest that this was a fragment of a larger object, perhaps ten feet in diameter, that had broken up about thirty miles above the earth.

 

Apparently, no one was there to emulate Jad Peters, but the episode does make you realize how much our lives are subject to chance events.

 

Each year thousands of meteorites are observed, especially at the time of the Perseid shower in mid-August and the Leonid shower in mid-November. Fortunately virtually all of those rocks burn up as they strike the earth's atmosphere.

 

But a few do get through. In January this year a golf-ball sized meteorite weighing as much as a can of soup crashed through the roof of a house in Freehold Township, New Jersey and embedded itself in a wall. And a football-sized rock from outer space smashed into a parked car in Peekskill, New York in 1992. Astronomers' estimates of the number of these small rocks that reach the earth each year range as high as 18,000. The Peru meteorite is considered large among them; many others are only the size of a marble.

 

Few of these small meteorites create impact craters like the one in Peru. They are either too small or their speed has reduced to that of free-fall and they barely penetrate the earth's surface. Clearly the Peru meteorite had not lost its cosmic velocity as it dug well into the ground.

 

Then, of course, there are the real giants, ranging from the automobile-sized, 16 ton Willamette Meteorite found near West Linn, Oregon where it crashed in pre-historic times to the one that caused the Chicxulub Crater off the Yucatan coast in Central America and is believed to have ended the age of the dinosaurs. That crater is over a hundred miles in diameter. Thankfully such huge rocks only hit earth over millennia.

 

But like winning the lottery, these chance events do happen.

 

The Peru meteorite had another effect. According to local health department official Jorge Lopez, "a strange odor" rose out of its crater. Local farmers and the police who visited the site complained of headaches and vomiting. Conspiracy theorists immediately speculated that the source was a hydrothermal explosion or that the meteorite was really a spy satellite.

 

The response to this by Lionel Jackson of the Geological Survey of Canada was straightforward: "The mysterious gases were steam. It was a rock that fell out of the sky and made a hole in the ground. End of story."

 

A further check by scientists indicated that no radiation was involved. And the sickening smell: sulfur compounds created by the extreme heat of the impact. School science students will recognize that unpleasant odor of hydrogen sulfide.-- Gerry Rising