UPDATE: 9/20/07, Filed at 7:26 p.m. ET:
Meteorite Likely Caused Crater in Peru
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS (via NYTimes)
LIMA, Peru (AP) -- Peruvian astronomers said Thursday that evidence shows a meteorite crashed near Lake Titicaca over the weekend, leaving an elliptical crater and magnetic rock fragments in an impact powerful enough to register on seismic charts.
As other astronomers learned more details, they too said it appears likely that a legitimate meteorite hit Earth on Saturday -- an rare occurence.
The Earth is constantly bombarded with objects from outer space, but most burn up in the atmosphere and never reach the planet's surface. Only one in a thousand rocks that that people claim are meteorites turn out to be real, according to Jay Melosh, an expert on impact craters and professor of planetary science at the University of Arizona.
Melosh was skeptical at first, initially calling it a ''non-meteorite'' and suggesting that the crater might have possibly come from below as a volcanic eruption. Then scientists learned of more details about the crater, as well as witness descriptions of a thunderous roar and a rain of smaller rocks coming down.
reBlogged from The Lede: Notes on the News (NYTimes):
In Peru, a Crater and Questions
By Mike Nizza, September 20, 2007, 9:27 am
Tags: peru, space
Reports on a small Peruvian town’s plight over the past few days include more than a few elements to boggle the mind — and then to make you wonder whether an episode of "The X-Files" is playing out in real time. (To set the spooky mood, just watch this short video.)
On Saturday night, a fiery object fell from the sky. Stunned residents said they tracked it to a fresh hole in the earth that was more than 60 feet wide, 15 feet deep, filled with boiling water and steaming with noxious fumes, according to a statement from the Health Ministry.
And then people started getting sick: more than 150 reported symptoms like dizziness, vomiting and skin lesions, according to a government statement quoted by Bloomberg News.
The Associated Press reports that a local official confirmed through tests that a "rocky meteorite" created the crater. But a meteorite expert at the Natural History Museum in London, who was interviewed by BBC News, said that "increasingly we think that people witnessed a fireball," which she said would not be uncommon, and that the hole in the ground was unrelated.
After seeing the fire in the sky, the local people "went off to investigate, and found a lake of sedimentary deposit, which may be full of smelly, methane-rich organic matter," Dr. Caroline Smith suggested. "This has been mistaken for a crater."
A NASA scientist interviewed by Space.com agreed, saying of the steaming pond that "statistically, it's far more likely to have come from below than from above." Adding to the confusion, the scientist concedes that the meteorite explanation was not impossible, but he would expect it to be a metal one, not the rocky one identified by tests at the scene.
A well-informed blogger also raises the possibility of a a mud volcano and voices more doubts that a meteor was responsible.
The local official who confirmed the meteorite strike also said that the water in the crater was boiling for 10 minutes, a detail that first emerged from witnesses in what appears to be the first English-language article about the incident, from Agence France-Presse.
"And this is where the story falls apart," a blogger at Wired writes, adding to that explanation in a post that started off, "Shades of the Andromeda Strain! How cool is this!" He continues:
Mid-sized meteorites are not hot. I'll say it again: Mid-sized meteorites are not hot. First, meteoroids are naturally cold. They've been out in the frigid blackness of space for many billions of years — these rocks are cold down to their very center. Second, because of its size there’s a good chance that this meteorite was originally part of a larger meteor that broke up anywhere between 60 and 30km above the surface. If that is the case, the larger meteor’s cold interior would become the smaller meteor’s cold exterior. Since hardly any surface heating takes place lower than about 30km, this cold surface doesn't warm up by any appreciable amount. Some meteorites, located soon after landing, have actually been reported to have frost on the surface due to their still cold interior.
Leave it to Pravda, Russia's state-run newspaper, to be first to report the most political explosive hypothesis for the hole in Peru. The crater, according to Russian Military Intelligence Analysts, was created when the United States Air Force shot down one of its own satellites, the paper says.
You see, the satellite was spying on Iran, and destroying it helps the United States lay the groundwork for an invasion, Pravda says. For a good conspiracy yarn, go read the rest of the article, which manages to tie together 9/11, the briefly missing nukes from a few weeks ago, and more.
Radiation from the supposed satellite's fuel cell is what sickened all those people, Pravda asserts. According to Living in Peru, radiation is indeed
being looked at as a possibility, and the tests are still being completed.
But it is far from clear what made people sick and where it came from. With residents recovering from their relatively minor ailments, a blogger at Knight Science Journalism Tracker was in a joking mood: "Maybe it's panspermic alien microbes. Maybe not. Swamp gas?"
It also may be all in their mind. A doctor who visited the area told The Associated Press that the scary event could have "provoked psychosomatic ailments." Here's what his team found:
A team of doctors sent to the isolated site, 3 1/2 hours travel from the state capital of Puno, said they found no evidence the meteorite had sickened people, the Lima newspaper El Comercio reported Wednesday.
Modesto Montoya, a member of the team, was quoted as saying doctors also had found no sign of radioactive contamination among families living nearby, but had taken blood samples from 19 people to be sure.
More definitive results are expected later today, so stay tuned.