Latvian meteorite impact: fake

By Phil Plait | October 26, 2009 9:49 am

I have been getting email from people talking about a possible meteorite impact in northern Latvia yesterday. I had a blog post all ready to go saying this whole thing sounded extremely fishy to me, and before I could post it I found out this story has been confirmed as a fake. Here’s the scoop:

Some reports indicated that there were eyewitnesses to a fireball around 17:30 local time yesterday (for example, here and here).

That’s fine, but what had me very suspicious was the report of a crater about 20 meters or so across. In general, small impact don’t leave craters; or atmosphere slows meteoroids down, so anything in the meter or smaller size wouldn’t be moving quickly enough to dig a big crater. Pictures were posted to a blog; while there was nothing initially I could point to that screams "FAKE!" to me, my spidey sense was all a-tingle. Here’s one picture:

latvian_meteorite

It shows the center of the crater, and again, it just didn’t look real to me. The crater is too deep for its width (most impact craters are shallower). Also, the rim is too piled up, and there’s no ejected rock or dirt sprayed out as you’d expect from an impact. Then, better pictures were posted and I could see immediately I was right; the crater simply doesn’t look real. It looks more like what someone thinks a crater should look like than what one actually does look like.

And that turns out to be the case: geologists from Tartu University confirmed the crater is not from an impact, and they even found shovel marks around the edge.

Oops!

I am always skeptical of reports like these (too bad CNN wasn’t, though, incredibly, the Daily Mail seems to have gotten this right; wonders never cease), but what really triggered my skeptalarm was this YouTube video of the supposed crater from the impact:

I didn’t believe this video at all. Look at the crater: the rim just looks like it was dug; the grass just outside it isn’t disturbed at all. Wouldn’t a flaming meteor at least singe the ground? And if I didn’t buy the crater, I really super duper didn’t buy the flaming rock sitting in the center. Meteorites tend not to be hot on impact! They decelerate violently as they come in, compressing the air in front of them. That’s why they get hot. But that happens in a few seconds, and stops while the rock is still a hundred kilometers up. It falls at terminal velocity the rest of the way for several minutes before impacting the ground.

So the meteoroid (the name for the solid part of the meteor) is falling through ice-cold air for a while before it hits. That’s why smallish meteorites are not hot. In fact, many are found to be cold right after impact!

So I was almost completely positive the video was a fake right after seeing it, and I’m glad to see my instincts were correct.

There was more reason to be suspicious, too. A rock a half meter for more across would make a fireball so intense that there would be thousands of witnesses especially given that it was late afternoon when it happened. The media reports don’t indicate it was seen by many people. No pictures of the actual fireball came out, either.

And now all of this makes sense because it’s a confirmed fake. So the only questions remaining are: why was this done? To promote tourism, as a joke, to sell tickets? And, of course, was Richard Heene involved?

Tip o’ the Whipple Shield to Mihkel Kama and Anna from StarSpace who was the first to tip me off to the story in the first place, as well as let me know it was fake.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Debunking, Skepticism
MORE ABOUT: Latvia, meteorite

Comments (49)

  1. StevoR

    Hey BA did you (or anyone else here) get to see any of the real Orionid meteors? I went out and saw a couple but, alas, not too many more than a couple. I was out a bit earlier than the listed time pre-dawn morning of the predicted maximum – but still too late for me – & had a few cloud issues as well. Any one else have better luck?

    (I observed on Oct. 21st – 22nd, 12.30- 2.30 am~ish Sth Aussie – & daylight saving time.)

    BTW. For more info, please may I recommend the Meteor showers online site :

    http://meteorshowersonline.com/orionids.html

    Quotes from there :

    “The Orionids generally begin on October 15 and end on October 29, with maximum generally occurring during the morning hours of October 20-22. The Orionids are barely detectable on the beginning and ending dates, but observers in the Northern Hemisphere will see around 20 meteors per hour at maximum, while observers in the Southern Hemisphere will see around 40 meteors per hour. The maximum can last two or three nights, although there is evidence of some fluctuation from year to year.

    & also

    “The discovery of the Orionid meteor shower should be credited to E. C. Herrick (Connecticut, USA). In 1839, he made the ambiguous statement that activity seemed to be present.”

    Thus making it the 180th anniversary of the Orionid showers discovery this year! Happy 180th birthday Orionids – here’s hoping you’ve had a storming celebration! ;-)

    Finally, one more quote if I may please this time from:

    http://www.examiner.com/x-8054-St-Louis-Astronomy-Examiner~y2009m10d16-Halleys-Comet-Returnssort-of

    “The astronomer C. P. Olivier (Virginia, USA) noted in 1911 that the orbit of the Orionids was quite similar to the orbit of the Eta Aquarid meteor shower. This was an intriguing idea because it had already been determined that the latter shower was produced by the famous Halley’s Comet. A debate followed because the orbit of Halley’s Comet did not come close enough to Earth in October to produce such a strong shower. The debate continued for over 7 decades. Finally, in 1983, B. A. McIntosh (Ottawa, Canada) and A. Hajduk (Bratislava, Czechoslovakia) noted, “the meteoroids simply exist in orbits where the comet was many revolutions ago.” Indeed, the orbit of the Orionids almost perfectly matched the orbit that Halley’s Comet moved in about 2300 years ago.

    Hope y’all find that interesting & worthwhile.

    PS. Yeah I posted this before too but ages ago at the end of another thread so in case folks here haven’t seen it .. I thought I post it again here.

    Hope that’s okay & my apologies if it breeches “netiquette” too much.

  2. Darren Garrison

    “So the meteoroid (the name for the solid part of the meteor) is falling through ice-cold air for a while before it hits. That’s why smallish meteorites are not hot.”

    Smallish, mediumish, and largish meteorites are not hot because most of the heat that goes into a falling meteoroid leaves in the form of the ablated material– as the surface heats up enough to melt or sublimate, that material quickly blows away from the object. Only a very thin (millimeters) surface of a shrinking meteoroid is ever hot at any given time. The only “hot” meteorites you will get are those still traveling at cosmic speeds when they hit– and that heat will come from the meteorite and ground being vaporized by the energy of the collision.

  3. Pisces

    Good question. Why do people make crop circles and claim to have seen aliens and their ships? Hmm….why does a guy claim his son accidentally went up in a mylar balloon? I’d say to get media attention…to be noticed, to have their 15 minutes of fame.

  4. petrolonfire

    Hey a fake metorite beats a fake “balloon boy” anyday! ;-)

    Looks like a nice campfire spot and bit of hoax-pulling fun to me.

    More harmless and clever than many. :-)

    Not that I’m actually condoning hoaxes or anything but anyhow. ;-)

  5. Along the lines of what Darren said, wouldn’t anything that left a 20′ crater make a pretty big kabang?

    Personally, I would have taken a rake and tried to fake radial lines from the center of impact. And I would have made a fiberglass rock and filled it with green ooze that would be leaking out.

    Then I would have my buddies film me playing with the green ooze and finally turning into Stephen King.

    I don’t think anyone would have questioned the authenticity.

  6. @Pisces

    “I’d say to get media attention…to be noticed, to have their 15 minutes of fame.”

    And become famously known as a pathetic loser who needs a life.

    I think many of my fellow pathetic losers agree that fact should be as private as possible. Deliberately making the fact public increases ones pathetic loserness by multitudes.

  7. Spectroscope

    Does anyone here speak Latvian and, if so, please could you give us all an idea of what they were saying in the clip?

  8. Petrolonfire

    @ 5 CafeenMan:

    I don’t think anyone would have questioned the authenticity.

    Well Stephen King might do so! ;-)

    (Unless he was in on it in advance .. Hmmm..)

    Green ooze? Why is it always *green* ooze? Come to think of it red or brown ooze would be much ickier I guess, ditto yellow, black would just look like oil, pink would be just comic and blue just wouldn’t look right, right? ;-)

  9. Blob

    The story had me fooled as well until i saw the pictures and video.

  10. LukeL

    My question is where is all the dirt? If it was from an impact, a satellite may have been able to see the ejecta, if not then where did all this dirt go and how was this done? Also seismographs should have picked up this impact as well.

  11. As for selling tickets – they already did that today. So yeah, sounds like a great plan to make a quick buck.

  12. Fox in Space

    Well, I don’t have such a good eye like You do, but when I run the movie for the first time and seen that flames in the pit, I knew it’s fake. But I have to admit – I was curious at start, since it’s not so far away from here (around 250-300 miles) and at some point it might have been detected by one of PFN fireball detection stations.

    Ironically, few years ago we had one meteor etimated one meter in diameter that exploded over Gdansk Bay (probably at 30 km) and was heard in 60 km radius. Unfortunately during daylight so no photographic data were gathered.

    Several smaller fireball have been detected since. Last significant one was detected on 22nd at 17:47UT.

  13. Lol! Brilliant! Of course all bolide impacts look like a mini-nuclear explosion!

    If I were to create a meteorite hoax, I’d at least work out how meteorite impacts really work before producing a horribly flawed YouTube video and leaving myself open to a very public trial of my stupidity.

    Oh dear.

  14. Sandijs

    Yes, daylight analysis of the place ruined feeling of sensation.

    But! Give a credit to students!

    They created quite a good joke, if we are rating so many jokes available on the YouTube.

    This was quite a entertaining joke.

  15. Flavio

    At first I thought it was pretty cool, but seeing the photos on the site, you just have a perfectly piled rim with no dirt scattered around, which is just nonsense. They should have used explosives to dig the crater :D

  16. … this one popped out later – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J4CElhwyvP4

    Seems they understood that this one will look more unreal than crater one. But voices are the same.

  17. Jeez, just new message popped out in news – this was PR campaign for GSM provider Tele2. Confirmed by company marketing and sales director…

    They promised to compensate all expenses.

  18. Jaanis

    Latvian mobile phone operator Tele2 just confessed to staging the “Mazsalaca Meteorite” as part of it’s new advertising campaign.

    http://translate.google.com/translate?u=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.diena.lv%2Flat%2Fpolitics%2Fhot%2Ftele2-atzistas-meteorita-lietas-inscenejuma&sl=lv&tl=en&hl=en&ie=UTF-8

  19. RL

    I read about this on Fox News’ website. Apparently, some investigating scientists saw evidence of spade digging in the crater.

  20. Ben

    It would have been so funny if that meteorite impact turned out to be real . Sadly, it’s clearly a hoax. The funny part is that few month ago, Lithuania’s Prime Minister, said that the chance of Latas (currency of Latvia) being devaluated is equal to the chance of a meteor hitting Latvia.

  21. If a production artist working for me had turned this in as a visual effects composite, I would tell them to start again. I would point out how the ejecta blanket looked lazy and soft, whereas to sell the effect shot we would need the ejecta to bear the signature of the velocity and power of its creation.

    Violent forces leave tell-tale debris. I may not be a scientist, but as an art director I sure know what does and doesn’t look *credible.* The Latvian site is, from an artistic perspective, a fail.

  22. Brasidas

    Coincidentally, did anyone see a fireball west of London last night? I saw a nice one travelling downwards in the western sky while on the M25 going home from watchng the Patriots against the Buccs.

  23. Logan

    First thing that came to mind when I saw this: “They can’t tell a crater from a hole in the ground”.

    LOL

  24. Scott

    I’m in Estonia, so have been watching the coverage here.
    Yes, it was a fake, started by the telephone/mobile company Tele 2. For what purpose, isn’t clear to me yet.
    They didn’t think their cunning plan through. The Minister of Interior said that would be billed for all the emergency services that were diverted there (mostly police). Charges are being contemplated.

  25. It can be a case when meteoroid is hot and burning on descend, when it is built of artificial materials. http://www-tc.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/columbia/images/inve-03-l.jpg
    No crater altough on the Columbia impact scene, and it was obviously low speed projectile.

    In soft ground, impact scene should look like a splash, unless it is very humid of course.

    Why Latvian military and gov studies the debri for like 50 hours and only than issued a statement and released foto of what appears 2 b a fake crater?

  26. Wayne on the plains

    My first thought was “viral marketing campaign”, looks like I wasn’t far off. Sad that that’s the first thing I think of these days.

  27. asas

    well, yeah it was confirmed 2 hours ago that it was only a marketing campign by local phone operator – tele2.

  28. Franz

    Someone requested a translation, so here it is. Nothing earth shaking…

    ” I don;t know”
    “Don’t go closer”
    “I want to see”
    “It stinks”
    “We will never see something like this again”
    “Something fell”
    “See the hole”
    “The hole is huge; it’s too dark”
    “It was no plane”
    “What are we going to do?”
    “We have to call someone, but who?”

  29. Chris

    Hey.

    I’m from Latvia. Yeah this whole “meteor” thing became quite big. Anyway, for the person who asked what the guys said in the youtube video – basically they said – “OMG, do you see that? What is it? Should we call someone? Damn, it really stinks here”, and so on.

    But, I kinda laughed my ass off when I heard that all this meteor thing was a marketing trick by one cell phone service company. Well, they got their attention. No idea, what will happen to them now, because all the security services were put on alarm. Anyway, great and original idea.

    Kudos for the imagination.

  30. If it were Latveria instead of Latvia, we’d know it was something to do with Victor Von Doom!

    J/P=?

  31. Jupiter

    >”So the meteoroid (the name for the solid part of the meteor) is falling through ice-cold air for a while before it hits. That’s why smallish meteorites are not hot.”

    >Smallish, mediumish, and largish meteorites are not hot because most of the heat that
    >goes into a falling meteoroid leaves in the form of the ablated material– as the surface
    >heats up enough to melt or sublimate, that material quickly blows away from the object.
    >Only a very thin (millimeters) surface of a shrinking meteoroid is ever hot at any given
    >time.

    And I’d be careful about getting burnt from it because the centre of it is likely still <100 kelvin.
    If I remember correctly the meteoroid in South America didn't create much ejecta – if it lands in softish earth and compresses a crater, then you won't get much thrown out, but then it won't be a large crater relative to the meteoroid.
    Entertaining anyway …

  32. JackC

    I don’t speak Latvian at all, but I am not sure you could convince me that the words at 0:34 are “Oh .. My .. Goodness.”

    JC

  33. kriss

    I speek Latvian , because I am Latvian
    they say
    ——————
    I want to see this
    What is it.

    I want to see it.
    You will never see things like this.
    Something has fell.
    That pit is huge .
    I want to see further that pit. I don`t know what has fallen. It was not a plane. Something is burning there
    . We have to call someone

    what should we call?
    Let`s call 112
    ———————————

    IT is all fake conversation :D

    this was fake

  34. to: JackC

    LOL :) The meaning of this words is the same..

  35. Another one from Latvia here.

    I have to say that I’m glad that we have such a nice bunch of people here. Minister of economics that doesn’t speak English, phone companies that dig holes for fun, and so on.

    Main idea why the dug that hole? So people for one day would speak about something else and not crisis. Well, at least they succeeded in that – most of people are either enraged or amused.

  36. Leonardo

    It was made by mobile operator TELE2 in Latvia.. it was campaigne

  37. Spectroscope

    @ 30. Franz Says:

    Someone requested a translation, so here it is. Nothing earth shaking…

    ” I don;t know”
    “Don’t go closer”
    “I want to see”
    “It stinks”
    “We will never see something like this again”
    “Something fell”
    “See the hole”
    “The hole is huge; it’s too dark”
    “It was no plane”
    “What are we going to do?”
    “We have to call someone, but who?”

    Thanks for that. :-)

    Thanks to Chris @ 32 too.

  38. Leonardo

    First, take a look at this:
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/8326483.stm

    Yesterday night it turned out that it was hoax – a marketing stunt by Tele2, the second largest mobile communication operator in the country. The company has promised to cover all expenses of all emergency services and scientists involved in the case.

    Now, a question: what would be public reaction to hoax like this, if it had been staged in your country? Would people just laugh and dismiss it? Would there be public outrage over wasted resources? Would Interior Ministry and subordinated institutions pledge to terminate their contracts with Tele2 and select new operator?

  39. It would be cool if it actually had happened. Unfortunately Latvia seems to be a nation of con-men, just behind Nigeria in bogasitude and credibility on the interwebs tubes. Every time I’ve been nailed by a stolen CC# the pilferage is done from Riga. Whoever sold the “meteoroids” is in the wind.

  40. The original planned hoax was to claim that a six year old boy had floated away in a balloon, but it turned out that’s been done.

  41. Hmm

    I don’t speak Latvian at all, but I am not sure you could convince me that the words at 0:34 are “Oh .. My .. Goodness.”

    JC
    —-
    They also demonstrated their capability to swear in three languages, which equals Oh my goodness here

    IMHO even from PR perspective this stunt is weak – they just lost a bunch of clients, starting with government and if they meant to give some message with this it certainly didn’t get through (thought tele2 says that this is launch for their new campaign, which will clarify what was going on here) and they got lots of negative media coverage, picturing them as irresponsible and unethical

  42. Blob

    The update to this farce is that the Swedish TELE2 telecoms company has lost its government contract, and the Latvian police are launching a formal investigation that will probably lead to criminal charges.

  43. anonymous

    People who post these hoax videos are sons of b****es.

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