The Sciences

A boy claims he was hit by a meteorite

Bad AstronomyBy Phil PlaitJun 12, 2009 3:52 PM


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A 14 year old German boy is claiming he was hit by a meteorite. If true, this is quite a story! Let me be clear to start: it's entirely possible that this story is in fact real, and the boy was struck by a meteorite. The odds of it happening are very low, but not zero (a woman in Sylacauga, Alabama was hit in 1954), and while it's good to be skeptical of things like this, there's no reason to automatically assume it's baloney. However, the way the story is reported almost certainly has some of its facts wrong. First, the headline: "14-year-old hit by 30,000 mph space meteorite". Bzzzzt! Wrong! If it had been moving that fast a direct hit would've killed him. That speed is about ten times faster than a rifle bullet, and had it actually hit him at that velocity a rock the size of a pea would've torn a hole through him the size of a basketball. Now, it's possible the meteorite simply barely grazed him, but the article isn't clear. Second, there's no way it was moving that fast to begin with. Meteoroids -- the solid bit of rock, iron, ice, or whatever -- move very rapidly in space relative to the Earth, but decelerate savagely as they ram through our atmosphere. Still 100 kilometers above the Earth's surface, a meteoroid that size would slow within a few seconds from hypersonic to subsonic speeds, then basically fall the rest of the way to the ground. It would be moving at maybe 200 kph when it hit the ground, not 50,000 kph as claimed in the article. Then things get really confusing. The article claims the boy was hit first, then the object hit the ground, carving out a one-foot crater. I'm having a hard time with that: if it hit the ground hard enough to blast a small crater, then it should've done a whole lot more damage to the boy than cause a three-inch scar. I suspect that, if we take the crater and all that at face value, it hit the ground first and then he was hit by shrapnel. The article says this was confirmed to be an actual meteorite:

Ansgar Kortem, director of Germany's Walter Hohmann Observatory, said: "It's a real meteorite, therefore it is very valuable to collectors and scientists."

However, my friend the Dutch science writer Govert Schilling talked to Kortem who is claiming he never saw the meteorite and was misquoted. Interesting. While this doesn't negate the story, it does cast some doubt on it. The boy says the piece was "magnetic", but I suspect he means attracted by magnet, since that's a common way to say it. That means it's iron, which is common enough in meteorites... but also in misidentified terrestrial objects, as well. Still, it's entirely realistic to think this may have been a real meteorite. So let's assume this is all real. How can we make sense of this? I have an idea that fits all this. What I suspect may have happened is that a larger meteoroid, maybe a meter or so across, came screaming into our atmosphere and exploded. This does happen: the fierce ram pressure of it moving through the air compresses the object and breaks it up, and then each piece of that breaks up from the pressure, and so on, with each breakup dumping energy into the air. At some point this happens so fast it's essentially an explosion, and the object gets blasted apart. In this case then the boy would've been hit by a smaller piece of the meteoroid moving much faster than the usual few hundred kph of terminal velocity, because it would've been accelerated by the explosion. Again, it's likely what actually hit him was shrapnel from the ground, and not the meteorite itself (unless it grazed him). The article doesn't say if they found the meteorite in the crater or not, but assuming they did my idea makes a lot more sense. But the story is maddeningly light in important details! How soon after the flash of light was the boy hit? What made the bang, the actual impact? Or did he hear it seconds before the impact? He says the flash and bang were after he felt the sting in his hand, but I wonder. Eyewitness reports are notoriously unreliable. I wish we had other witnesses to this event! It says this happened on his way to school; I would expect other kids would've seen this as well! I have received a lot of emails and Twitter notes about this, and a lot of folks doubt the story as a whole, and are asking about parts of it. So to be brief my take is this: the story is plausible that this boy was the victim of a meteorite impact. He may have been grazed by one, or hit by shrapnel when it hit the ground. This could have been a piece of a larger object that exploded in the air, heating up and propelling lots of smaller pieces, one of which caused the event. If this happened close enough to the ground the explosion could have knocked him down as he claims. But the lack of details in the story -- like other eyewitnesses -- makes the actual event difficult to pin down. Hopefully we'll get more details soon.

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