The Sciences

Latvian meteorite impact: fake

Bad AstronomyBy Phil PlaitOct 26, 2009 1:49 PM


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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:

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.

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