[Update to the update (Oct 25): Apparently, the rock found is not actually a meteorite. These things can be tricky to identify, and the first conclusion was mistaken. Bummer.]
[Update to the update to the update; that is, update 3: (Oct 26): OK, see if you can follow along, since I barely can. A rock was found that was thought to be a meteorite from the fireball, and then thought not to be. Well, guess what? It’s back on the list! A second rock was found a few kilometers away and identified as a meteorite, which prompted Peter Jenniskens to look over the first one again. He has concluded it actually is a meteorite. At this point, I think I’ll hold off re-dis-un-updating all this, and if there’s more news, I’ll start a new blog post. Thanks to BABloggee Mike McJimsey for the link.]
This is exciting: a meteorite from last week’s fireball over northern California has been found! NBC is reporting a small chunk, 4-5 centimeters across and weighing about 60 grams, struck a house in Novato, California shortly after the fireball was seen.
They’re reporting Peter Jenniskens, a SETI astronomer and meteorite expert, confirmed the find. That’s critical: a lot of rocks are mistaken for meteorites by people (and the media) who aren’t familiar with them. This chunk is small, though, and given how bright the fireball was and how it was seen to fragment, I’d think bigger pieces must have fallen. That area is fairly well-populated – I used to live not far from there and cursed traffic every time I had to endure it – so hopefully more pieces will turn up.
The beauty of this is that because it was seen by several cameras and dozens of witnesses, the path across the sky can be well-determined. That can be backtracked in space to see where in the solar system it came from. And with an actual piece of that asteroid in hand, we can learn more about what conditions are like in parts of space we would otherwise have to send probes to explore.
It’s planetary science, and we get it essentially for free! And we got a really cool light show to go along with it. Everyone wins.
Image credit: Erin Murphy / NBC Bay Area
On April 22, 2012, a chunk of asteroid one or two meters across burned up in Earth’s atmosphere. It came in over California and was seen by a lot of people, despite it occurring at about 8:00 a.m. local time and in broad daylight.
I just became aware that some footage was taken of the event, and as far as I know is the only video we have of it. It was taken by Shon Bollock, who was making a time-lapse kayaking video just outside Kernville, California as part of his Shasta Boyz adventuring website:
Pretty cool! It looks like he caught the very beginning of it burning up in the upper atmosphere. Not long after this, the meteoroid broke apart, raining down small meteorites onto the ground which were later found spread over the countryside.
The video is being studied by astronomers and meteoriticists to try to calculate the trajectory, speed, and possible orbit of the object. This is difficult with just one video, so if you have pictures you took or, better yet, more video, please let me know!
Tip o’ the Whipple Shield to Aaron Johnson on Twitter.
When we look at the solar system now, we see it after it’s had billions of years of evolution under its belt. Things have changed a lot since it first formed out a swirling disk of material, 4.5 billion years ago. We can make some pretty good guesses about the way things looked back then, though. We can see other systems forming around other stars, for example, to get an idea of what things look like when they’re young.
But we can also look at our own solar system, look at the planets, the comets, the asteroids, and, like astronomical archaeologists, get a glimpse into our own cosmic past.
We know that asteroids formed along with the rest of the system back then. We also know that there are many kinds of asteroids: rocky, metallic, chondritic, some even have ice on or near their surface. Some formed far out in the solar system, and some formed near in. The thing is, we think the vast majority of the asteroids that formed close to the Sun were absorbed by — and by that, I mean smacked into and became part of — the inner planets, including Earth. Only a handful of those asteroids still remain intact after all this time. But now we think we’ve found one: the main belt, 130 km-long asteroid Lutetia.
Using a fleet of telescopes, astronomers carefully measured the spectrum of Lutetia — including spectra taken by the European Rosetta space probe, which visited Lutetia in July 2010 and returned incredible close-up images (see the gallery below). The spectra were then compared to spectra of meteorites found on Earth — meteorites come from asteroids after a collision blasts material from them, so they represent a collection of different kinds of asteroids that we can test in the lab here on Earth.
They found that the spectrum of Lutetia matches a very specific type of meteorite found on Earth, called enstatite chondrites. These rare rocks have a very unusual composition that indicates they were formed very near the Sun, where the heat from our star strongly affected their formation. They have a clearly different composition than meteorites which formed in asteroids farther out in the solar system, and are an excellent indication that Lutetia formed in the inner solar system, in the same region where the Earth did.
So Lutetia is a local! There aren’t many like it in the asteroid main belt between Mars and Jupiter, and in fact it’s a bit of a mystery how it got there; perhaps a near encounter with Earth or Venus flung it out that way, and then the influence of Jupiter made its orbit circular. And there it sits, a relatively pristine example of what the solar system was like when it was young. Currently, the Dawn space mission is orbiting the large asteroid Vesta, and will make its way to Ceres, the largest asteroid, after that. I have to wonder if NASA is eyeing Lutetia as another possible target. It’s an amazing chance to visit an object that may yield a lot of insight into our own planet when it was but a youth.
After all, you can take the asteroid out of the inner solar system, but you can’t take the inner solar system out of the asteroid.
Image credit: ESA 2010 MPS for OSIRIS Team. MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/RSSD/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
[Update: It looks like the cause of this was a gas bottle exploding, and not a meteorite. See the update for 21:15 UT below).]
A deadly explosion and fire occurred in Argentina overnight, reportedly killing one woman and injuring several others. Two homes, a store, and several vehicles were destroyed or damaged.
The thing is, while it’s not clear what caused this incident, several people said they saw a ball of fire descend from the sky when it happened.
Neighbors’ accounts describe a ball of fire coming from the sky as the cause of the explosion. The chief of the firefighters, Guillermo Pérez, however, said the "causes remain unknown" and that "gas containers were found intact," ruling out a gas related incident.
Other reports are similar; in that article the ball of fire was described as being blue. I know a lot of folks will think this was caused by a meteor, but it’s a bit early to run with that yet. For one thing, it could’ve been a small plane on fire, for example; this happened very early in the morning (2:00 a.m.), and from the reports I’m seeing it’s not clear if the witnesses were already awake when they saw this or were awakened by it. Eye witness reports are notoriously unreliable, and it can’t help if the witnesses were suddenly woken up.
[Update (17:30 UT): This is looking less like a meteorite to me; this news story has a witness saying he saw the blue fire after hearing the explosion, and after he went outside to see what was what. Thanks to JoseManuelp2 for the link.]
As testament to that, I’m seeing some reports that the ball was red, and a picture was posted to the imaging site yfrog claiming, without any any supporting evidence, to be a shot of it. I include it here; note it’s very dark, out of focus, and very low resolution (from the pixelation). I have no clue what this picture shows, but I have my doubts it’s a fireball. I expect we’ll be seeing lots of rumors and things like this today.
[Update (21:15 UT): The image shown here of the red fireball is a hoax, and the man responsible for it has been arrested. Also reported in that link is that there were gas bottles secretly hooked up to a pizza making stove in a nearby house, and that this may be the cause of the explosion. I expect that is the final straw on this story — enough evidence is piling up that this was not something form space, or even from the sky; it was some kind of terrestrial event, as expected.]
The explosions and devastation appear to be very real, though. This is the only video I could find on YouTube, and it has no audio, but it shows the aftermath:
I don’t see any obvious airplane wreckage, but it’s hard for me to see that a meteorite impact would’ve done this; for it to have been big enough to cause this much devastation, there would’ve been a big crater as well (like the one that hit in Peru a couple of years back). None is evident, so I’m strongly of the opinion something more terrestrial was to blame here.
I won’t be surprised to hear people asking if this was from the UARS satellite, too. However, that’s pretty much impossible; the satellite came down Friday night, and there couldn’t have been pieces of it still in orbit two days later. Also, again, the type of destruction seen here is unlikely to have been from just a simple impact.
Hopefully we’ll find out soon. If you hear anything please leave a comment below (with a link if you have one), and I’ll post an update when I learn more.
[Update: A grass fire in Texas Saturday night has been reported, and it’s claimed to be linked to something falling from the sky. Again, a meteorite is extremely unlikely there, since it would take a big impact to ignite fires. Stuff like this happens all the time, and remember Texas is extremely dry right now. I would guess this was fireworks, but there’s not much info on this story either. Thanks to Baron Grim on Twitter for the story.]
Tip o’ the Whipple Shield to Antropomorficah on Twitter. Image credit: screen grab from embedded C5N video.
On Saturday I posted about the claims of Richard Hoover, a NASA scientist who says he has found evidence of fossilized microbes in a meteorite. As soon as I saw the story (thanks to a tweet from my friend Sheril) I knew the ‘net would explode with the news, so I wrote a quick post about it. My intent was to be as scrupulously fair as I could be while still trying to rein in the usual speculation that follows sexy news like this.
I’ve had a day to mull all this over, and I wanted to write some more thoughts about it. My initial thought was, of course, extreme skepticism — we’ve seen claims like this before which haven’t panned out, and this one has a lot more, um, hyperbole than most before it — but not being an expert in biology I didn’t want to make any firm conclusions until the experts weighed in.
Well, now they’re weighing in.
You can skip down to my conclusions — let’s just say here it doesn’t look good for the microaliens — but what follows is a more in-depth analysis.
My friend Penny Boston is an astrobiologist at New Mexico Tech (if her name is familiar, she was a guest scientist on episode 2 of "Bad Universe", when we went into Spider Cave to look at extremophiles). She sent me a note about Hoover’s claims, saying:
Rocks, even the most high density materials, are prone to microfractures. Microorganisms are notoriously splendid at working their way into incredibly minute microfractures…
Showing that the bug that you have actually is NOT a contaminant organism that made its way into a meteorite is a practically unsolvable problem. If you turn up an organism whose chemistry, way of coding information, or something else (besides morphology) indicates that it is significantly (and I MEAN significantly) different from anything that has ever been seen on Earth, THEN you might have a chance of proving this. Pictures of tube shaped structures don’t do it.
I wondered about this as well. As I said in my first post, the major problem here is contamination. Even if we assume the things Hoover is seeing are fossilized life forms — and that’s not established! — can he show beyond a reasonable doubt that they are not from Earth? The meteorite in question is not a hard, dense rock, but actually very soft and friable (crumbly). Contamination in such a specimen is very likely. Hoover does not and really can not make a strong case that contamination is ruled out.
Another concern of mine was that he is basing a lot of this on the shape of the structures he sees… but looking like a microbe doesn’t make them a microbe! And Hoover goes farther than that. In an earlier work, he states flatly that these objects are fossils, and that they have bacterial structures inside them:
Energy Dispersive X-ray Spectroscopy (EDS) and 2D maps indicate that these filaments in Orgueil are permineralized with magnesium sulfate, encased within carbon-rich sheaths and depleted in Nitrogen. Many of the large and complex forms are polarized filaments that exhibit highly differentiated and specialized cells for nitrogen fixation (heterocysts) and reproduction (hormogonia, akinetes and baeocytes).
Look at the phrasing there: he is stating these things have structures that perform biological processes. There’s no "maybe", or "perhaps" in his claims. He is saying quite simply these things were once alive.
I have a serious problem with that. So does Dr. Boston:
[UPDATE (March 7, 2011): I’ve posted a followup on this news with a much more detailed analysis, and not too surprisingly the scientific consensus coming in is that the claims of alien fossils are way wrong.]
Richard Hoover, an astrobiologist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, thinks he may have found bacteria in a meteorite.
Yes, you read that right. The question is, is he right?
I don’t know. Dr. Hoover has published his findings in the online Journal of Cosmology (see below for more about this journal), and it was reported today by Fox News (thanks to Sheril at The Intersection for the tip).
Basically, Hoover found structures inside a rare type of meteorite — the Orgueil meteorite which fell in France in 1864 — that look very much like microbes of some sort. Here’s an example from the paper:
Those are odd and intriguing formations, to be sure. If I were scanning through a meteorite and saw those, I’d be pretty surprised too.
But appearances can be deceiving. Are these actually fossilized microscopic life forms?
Hoover makes several claims to show that a non-biotic origin for these structures is very unlikely. I am not an expert and won’t cast my vote either way here. This is not the first time Hoover has made such claims; he gave a similar presentation in 2007. There have also been many similar claims in the past. In fact, in the second episode of "Bad Universe" I interviewed NASA astrobiologist Dave McKay, who has also found very interesting features in a Mars meteorite that look a lot like bacteria. However, definitive proof is another matter. McKay’s opinion is that what he found was once alive, but he also was clear that scientifically he could not be sure (I found his skepticism to be well-grounded and at the right level, to be honest).
Probably the biggest bump in the road for showing these things are life-forms is to show they are not the result of Earthly bacteria getting inside the meteorite after it hit. This is very tough to do, though Hoover says this in his paper:
So my TV show "Phil Plait’s Bad Universe" premieres on the Discovery Channel this Sunday, August 29, at 10:00 p.m (did you see the sneak peek?). And I figure, what better way to promote it than another BA giveaway contest?
Yay! So I’m giving away a lot of swag related to the show, plus some other neat stuff. To wit [click the pix to embiggen]:
Specifically, the winner will receive:
- A signed copy of my book Death from the Skies! on which Bad Universe is based
– Actual shrapnel from the rocks we hit to test asteroid mitigation techniques (see pic on right)
– Shrapnel from the aluminum ball used in the kinetic impactor test (on the upper left of that pic)
– A (really funny) Bad Universe promotional postcard
– Hubble paper clips
– Stickers, including a CfI "Science Saves" bumper sticker
– A NASA 2010 calendar (I know, but the pictures are really pretty)
– Space images DVD
– Hubble Space Telescope documentary DVD
– An official NASA Hubble pin
– A Hubble cookie cutter. Seriously.
– Other miscellaneous stuff
I have lying around with an enormous coolness factor.
… and, oh, how about also
An actual honest-to-FSM meteorite, a piece of asteroid that fell to Earth!
Yeah, I thought that might get your attention. This is a chunk of Sikhote-Alin meteorite that fell in Russia in 1947. It weighs 129 grams (4.6 ounces) and is about 5 x 3 x 2.5 cm (2 x 1.2 x 1 inches) in size. It’s almost solid iron, very heavy and dense, and if you’ve never held a meteorite before, well, you’re in for a treat. It’s awesome. I’ll include a writeup I did of the meteorite as well.
So how do you win this great stuff? Here’s the deal:
A little while back, some news agencies were buzzing over the possibility that a meteorite had fallen in Israel. After all, it was hot and smoking when it was found!
… which is a clear sign that it wasn’t a meteorite. Small rocks like that slow down to a couple of hundred kph when they are still high up in the atmosphere, falling slowly and getting plenty of time to cool off before they hit the ground. And, as it turns out, this meteorwrong was most likely an incendiary device.
This reminds me of the fake impact in Latvia from last October. This Israeli event may not have been faked on purpose, but it’s certainly not a meteorite.
Remember, if it’s smoking and hot, it’s more likely to be fireworks than a fire from the sky.
What on Earth could have created a hole like this in the roof of a house in Cartersville, Georgia?
Why, nothing. Nothing on Earth, that is. Because here’s the culprit:
Yowza. That’s a stony meteorite, and in March 2009 it came screaming down out of the sky and punched that hole! The cube is one centimeter (about a half inch) on a side, and is used for scale. What a great specimen! And it weighs in at 294 grams — more than half a pound — so it’s hefty. It must’ve been moving at quite a clip when it smacked that house, probably a couple of hundred kilometers per hour.
And if you want to see it for yourself, and live near Atlanta, now’s your chance: The Tellus Science Museum will have the rock on display — together with the roof and ceiling under it that got whacked — starting tonight at 6:00 p.m. as part of their Earth Day event.
I wonder if it’ll still be on display when Dragon*Con rolls around… [Update: I heard from the museum; yup. It’ll still be on display!]
And if you’re wondering about the post title, then this might help. Given the museum’s location, it seemed appropriate.
Apparently, the first meteorite from the fireball over Wisconsin has been found: a pair of brothers discovered a small chunk of the bright meteor that burned up over the midwest skies Wednesday night.
It certainly looks like a meteorite (click to embiggen); the outer blackened fusion crust is from passing through the air, and the interior has the gray, grainy structure in common chondrites. The cube is one centimeter in size and is used in photos like this to give scale.
Pretty cool. There may be thousands of such meteorites lying on the ground in Wisconsin right now; the meteoroid itself was probably a meter or so in size and weighted about a ton. Meteorite hunters are already there searching, and I hope that most of the fallen rocks will be sent to researchers for analysis.
Falls like this are very important scientifically. Having a lot of eyewitnesses means the path and therefore the orbit of the rock can be ascertained, and many times such meteoroids are part of a family of such objects; all on related orbits and probably from the same parent body. When we get samples of the meteorites that means we have samples of an asteroid!
So if you live in that area and find something suspicious, take photographs of it where it is, then carefully put it in a baggie or box (use gloves if you can so you minimize contamination) and contact a local University. The vast majority of rocks found this way aren’t meteorites (we call ‘em meteorwrongs, haha) but it’s worth making sure.
Image: Terry Boudreaux, submitted to Rocks From Space by Michael Farmer.