Toyota Tacomaeteor

By Phil Plait | November 28, 2005 9:16 pm

Is that image from real footage of a meteorite impact in a desert?

Nope, but it’s pretty convincing! I’m getting a bit of email about it. The video clip in question (Quicktime format) seems to show a couple of guys in the desert filming their friends in a Toyota Tacoma truck. One of them says, “What’s that?”, and you can see a smoke trail in the sky. Suddenly, a meteorite slams into the ground a few meters away, right where the truck was! There’s an explosion, and the cameraman is knocked off his feet.

There are a few sites on the web that post weird or funny video clips, and this video can be found on some of them. Most of them have trimmed the last few seconds of the video off. However, if you find a site with the complete version, you’ll see the truck emerge unscratched from the explosion, and then a tagline appears: "TACOMA/METEOR-PROOF". That should make it clear this is just a put-on.

Since this is the Bad Astronomy Blog, I should point out that meteoroids that small won’t hit the ground with a huge bang, smoke, and fire. I wrote an article about this for Meteoroids that size slow down extremely rapidly high in the atmosphere, and take several minutes to fall the rest of the way to the ground at relatively low speed (maybe a few hundred miles per hour, compared to several thousand m.p.h. when they first hit the top of the atmosphere). Since they spend so much time way up in the atmosphere, where it’s very cold, they have plenty of time to cool off — especially since the heated outer layers of the meteoroid generally slough off while it’s still moving rapidly. It’s only really big meteoroids — many meters wide — that hit the ground while still moving quickly enough to generate heat.

And even then it’s no guarantee: while the impact that created Meteor Crater in Arizona was from the impact of a chunk of iron about 100 meters across, the explosion in Siberia in 1908 was an airburst, a rock that exploded many kilometers above the surface. So composition matters as well.

Note that I wrote that article back in 2002. No one ever listens to me, though, so I expect this myth of hot meteor impacts to go on a long time. At least until a small meteorite hits CNN headquarters or some other news outlet. Then they’ll probably call it a comet.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Time Sink

Comments (46)

Links to this Post

  1. Dogged Blog | November 30, 2005
  2. Life in the Real World » Meteor footage | December 7, 2005
  3. Glúon /blog » Vídeo de um meteoro no deserto | March 22, 2006
  1. Andy

    snopes already had an article about this, iirc.

    it’s a cool video, nice CG, even if as you said, there would either be no explosion or a much larger one.

    this is a cool video too, in a similiar vein

  2. Andy

    oops! WARNING: foul language in that video!

  3. antipodean

    hehe, nice ad

    mine and my brothers simultaneous reaction when we saw it “Bulls***”

    then we cracked up laughing

  4. JusANuttaBackYahdah

    Amazing to me that anyone would even think that the footage could be real but then again….
    Speaking of comets BA do you have any thoughts/insights on the return visit of Schwassmann-Wachmann 3? I was perusing one of my books the other day planning a session and noticed that this periodic comet has an observing date of 05/2006 with a projected magnitude of 1.5! I’m certainly looking forward to that show as this is well into the naked eye range; hope it doesn’t disappoint; my evil twin side is hoping for amusing chicken little stories surrounding its return.
    Clear skies 😉

  5. Michelle Rochon

    Huh. I do hope no one thought it was real! Just looking at the start shows the meteor is an addon. Badly done. 😛

    Nice joke though.

  6. Roy Batty

    Did you hear about the pie that fell to Earth?
    It was ‘meaty all right’.

    (i’ll get me coat 😉

  7. Evolving Squid

    What would be the smallest meteor (stony, iron, whatever) that could hit the earth and make any kind of crater/explosion.

    Obviously, ANYTHING falling will make a small dent. But there must be a theoretical limit, a line below which the meteorites arrive slow and make a small dent, and above which they arrive fast and make a large mess. I’m sure it’s not quite as binary as that, but I think you get what I mean.

    We know a 100m chunk of iron will make a huge crater, and a 1 cm chunk of iron might bust up your car a little but otherwise be no big deal. There’s 5 orders of magnitude between those, so…

    1 cm – divot for sure.
    10 cm – Crater or divot?
    50 cm – Crater or divot
    1m – Crater or divot?
    5m – Crater or divot?
    10m – Crater or divot? I’m pretty sure it’s well into crater territory here.
    100m – Crater for sure.

  8. NelC

    10cm – divot, I guess. This meteorite split off from a larger meteor, but I guess it would still have reached terminal velocity fairly quickly:

    Oh, and here’s a slightly larger one:

    What are the conditions necessary for making a crater, anyhow? Is it that the rock has to be travelling fast enough when it hits the ground for the KE to vapourise the rock? I’d think they’d have to be pretty big, ~10m at the smallest.

  9. Uh… anyone who’s watched prime-time television (say, CSI?) in the last month or so has seen the whole commercial at least once. People have been FOOLED by this? Yowch. *shudder* It’s a cute spot, but sheesh.

  10. Mila

    it seems that a lot of people entertain the notion the meteors are heated up due to friction – including space scientists – and even the american meteor society has a link to this website (, where it is explained that meteors glow due to friction . Is there by the way any other – ehmm more official reference for your explanation, so I have more backup for this claim?

  11. Evolving Squid

    I was always under the impression that objects flying at high-speed through the atmosphere are heated by a combination of mostly compression heating (the compression, and resultant heating of the air, due to an object travelling at supersonic speeds) and to a much lesser degree, friction with the air itself.

    That is to say, subsonic projectiles don’t heat up much because friction is pretty low and they don’t really compress the air in front of them, but supersonic projectiles (SR-71, meteors, Apollo capsules, Vogon Constructor ships) compress the air in front of them and heat it up.

  12. When I lived in Darwin a few years back, a miltary plane dropped a dummy bomb during an military exercise. I landed on the bonnet of a Toyota Landcruiser and smashed the engine out through the bottom.

    A man was qouted in the newspaper: ” I heard a loud noise nearby and ran over to investigate. When I got there I found this bomb sticking out of a Toyota. I then gave it a kick to see if it was live”

    Good thing that it was only a dummy or it would have looked like that movie. I’m sure people like him could get work in a bomb squad, robot equipment is very expensive and they can’t self-replicate like humans.

  13. Blake Stacey

    “When I lived in Darwin a few years back”. . . Is that “Darwin” as in “Darwin Award”?

  14. HvP

    I think he means “Darwin Award” as in people so dumb they remove themselves from the gene pool by accidentally bringing about their own demise – thus, natural selection in action. There’s a website all about it, but I don’t have the stomach for it.

  15. Irishman, you got it right. Darwin Northern Territory, Australia.
    But that guy sure did deserve the Darwin Award.

  16. Irishman

    Mila, I suspect part of the problem is in the definition of “friction”. I think in places like that website, scientists are using something that most people have experienced and are vaguely familiar with to help explain a similar if not entirely the same principle with which they probably are not familiar.

    I think the technical distinction is that friction is tangential drag, i.e. drag between two sliding surfaces, while the main feature heating meteors is normal or perpendicular drag, i.e. the supersonic compression of the air in front of the meteor. The same principles apply to supersonic aircraft, bullets, etc. I think the websites are loosely using friction to mean any drag between the meteor/aircraft/etc with the air.

    I can’t seem to turn up any good descriptions.

  17. Oops, when I said “guy” I really meant “bloke”. gotta stay in character.
    “That’s not a knife (I pull out my Leatherman), That’s a knife!

  18. JusANuttaBackYahdah
  19. NelC

    The SR-71 quite famously heats up during flight, to the extent that its fuel tank leaks when it’s at normal temperature, and only stops when it’s expanded due to the heat. But the Blackbird spends several hours at high speed, whereas a meteorite moving at several km/s may only spend, I guess, a few seconds at high speed before it slows down to terminal velocity or hits the ground.

  20. Andy

    size has little to do with it. it’s all about density (for high mass/ low drag) and size(low drag, high terminal velocity that doesn’t get reached before impact).

    an interesting study would be how small craters are on the moon, where there is no atmosphere and thus no terminal velocity.

  21. NelC

    Does a crater on a 0.25mm spherule count, Andy?

  22. Evolving Squid

    I guess that’s the real question… how big can one get before it will no longer be slowed to terminal velocity, thereby slamming in hard at astronomical speeds instead of thudding in relatively gently at a low few hundred km/h.

  23. Andy

    cool pic, NelC.

    there is no binary line where the object won’t reach terminal velocity before impact and therefore cause a large crater. it’s much more gradual. an object that would have reached t.v. 1 second after impact, and one that reaches t.v. one second before impact, are both going to have almost identical impacts.

  24. Anonymous

    Method is such a great advertising group. I want to work for them when I graduate.

  25. Chip

    I can imagine a sequel:

    Bro: (Singing while shooting with camera:) “Chickey cho chickee chee…�
    Other guy: “Hey Bro do you see that?”
    Bro: “What?”
    (Giant asteroid the size of Manhattan screams in – enormous explosion – screen goes white hot – gigantic crater explodes – millions of tons of dust and molten rock soar into the upper atmosphere,) … and all through this we hear the guys in the truck going :”Yee Ha! Did –You- See -That?!” “Yeeee Haaaa!”

  26. Chip, you just descriped the whole plot of the movie Armageddon.

  27. NelC

    If a crater is formed when the meteor strikes the ground with enough velocity to vapourise the rock, then I doubt it will be anywhere near terminal velocity anyway, not for the 10cm to 10m sizes the Evolving Squid was wondering about, so I think you’re being unnecessarily painstaking there, Andy.

  28. NelC

    For what it’s worth, BA, John S. Lewis in his book “Rain of Ice and Fire” cites many historic reports of iron meteorites starting fires, while agreeing that stony meteorites often frost up after impact.

  29. Nigel Depledge

    NelC said:
    “The SR-71 quite famously heats up during flight, to the extent that its fuel tank leaks when it’s at normal temperature, and only stops when it’s expanded due to the heat. But the Blackbird spends several hours at high speed, whereas a meteorite moving at several km/s may only spend, I guess, a few seconds at high speed before it slows down to terminal velocity or hits the ground.”

    It may interest some of you that Concorde (remember that?), when travelling at Mach2 at 60,000 feet, used to grow, in length, one foot due to thermal expansion. Under the carpet in the aisle, the floor is made of separate plates, and apparently (if you take the carpet up) you could see them move (and if you can see daylight, you should tell somebody … :)). Of course, it shrank again as it slowed down.

    Across the cockpit windows at the front of the aircraft, there was a heatshield that protected the pilots from the compressive / frictional heating. It also meant they couldn’t see where they were going. They still had the little side windows (so they could see where they’d been), but there still is very little traffic at 60,000 feet so it was not really a problem.

  30. Evolving Squid

    I did some checking, and found this site:

    It says: However meteoroids larger than a few hundred tons are slowed very little; only these large (and fortunately rare) ones make craters.

    The page seems to catch the general sense of what I was after. Sooo, if we assume that “a few hundred tons” translates to 200-500 tons, and we will conjecture that they mean metric tonnes, not imperial or US tons, we can make the following calculations:

    1. density of iron: 7874 kg/m3
    2. density of chondrite stone: 2670 kg/m3

    Smallest one would be 200ish tonnes of iron, or about 25 cubic metres. The larger end of the threshhold would be 500 tonnes of chondrite, or about 190 cubic metres. Assuming perfectly spherical asteroids (God’s billiard table :) ), that translates to about a 4m diameter ball of iron, to about a 7m ball of chondrite stone.

    Thus, I guess the sort of “nasty crater” threshold is about 5-10m, over which they generally make traditional craters, and below which they are just kind of annoying to have land on you.

    Ah, the wonder of the internet!

  31. Dave Kary

    My understanding of the problem with meteorites is simply that it’s cold in our part of the solar system: the equilibrium temperature at our distance from the Sun is around 250 K or more than 20 degrees below freezing Celsius. So an meteorite hitting the Earth has that temperature. When it passes through the air the outer layers do heat up, but they also ablate away, carrying the heat with them. That’s why meteorites stay cold even after passing through the atmosphere.

    At least, that’s my understanding of the process.


  32. NelC

    Nod. With metallic meteors, however, the metal is a better conductor of heat, and so the surface doesn’t ablate (or not as much, maybe), and the meteor becomes warm throughout. If it comes in at a shallow angle to the horizon, and so cuts through more atmosphere, I guess it could get plenty warm enough to set fire to something.

  33. Alan Bolden

    Dear BA,
    Didn’t see another way to contact you on this and given the subject matter I thought I should throw this out there.,14493,1660485,00.html Apparently there is now a credible threat from a NEO in about 31 years. I know you are not an alarmist but I would love to hear your take on this. Been reading your site for years and for all the killer space clouds and invisible traveling killer planets I thought it was interesting that now there is a distinct possibility of something in the near future and the doom sayers have yet to say anything. But then again why would they say something about a possibility of 1 in 5000 when a killer space cloud is much more believable.

  34. 3P

    Well I just happened upon this website when I was setting up a blog for my wife. I know little to nothing about meteorites, but I think I may have found one about 7 years ago. I was digging in my fron yard and found a semi ablong rock withabout the same mass as a baseball. I thought it was just a rock until a picked it up and its weight was more that of solid metal.

    It was black in color but the underlying color was that of nickel. There was a small cavern in the rock with something that looked like some kind of hard dark crystal embedded in it.

    As far as I know it was a naturally accuring metal/mineral. Any ideas?
    Wish I knew where I put it. I think its somewhere in an old box in storage.

  35. I would be more interested in knowing if the Toyota Tacoma could withstand a direct hit from space debris. I understand there are a few satellites in decaying orbits. I will soon be selling black hole insurance, and wonder if added space debris protection should be included as a bonus.


  36. I’ve personally seen more than one fireball move, apparently, slowly across the sky. Not your normal Persied streak. The feeling one gets is that they are fairly close and slow. Of course, there’s no depth perception clues, something which seemed obvious to me the first time I saw one, which was when I was probably about eight. My conclusion at the time was that I had no idea how far it was, and that was good enough. Most people want to jump at some conclusion. I’ll bet that this phenomenon is frequent enough to keep up the myths. “I saw it with my own eyes…”.

    It has taken some time, but my concept of obvious doesn’t make it to the average adult american… obviously.

  37. lewis

    that is not a meteor its just some people playing around because if it was a meteor it would make a massive hole in the ground and kill all of the people around it!!! but it looks really good and afective

  38. Did anyone else noticed the “2012 comet” add that appears in the upper right of this page…?

    Phil, perhaps you might want to do something about that…

  39. Oops, I misplaced the comment. The add appears in the “Death by meteorite” post, not this one.

  40. My-Name-is-Kenneth

    Why do these things like UFOs only happen to rednecks?

  41. Why do these things like UFOs only happen to rednecks?


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


See More

Collapse bottom bar