February 15, 2013

Kansas Meteorite Museum’s owner sees Russia meteor as cautionary tale

After the meteor streaked across the Russian sky on Friday, shattering windows and injuring nearly 1,000 people, Don Stimpson started getting calls at his Kansas Meteorite Museum, which sits, as he says, in the middle of nowhere in rural Kansas.

After the meteor streaked across the Russian sky on Friday, shattering windows and injuring nearly 1,000 people, Don Stimpson started getting calls at his Kansas Meteorite Museum, which sits, as he says, in the middle of nowhere in rural Kansas.

The meteor over Russia exploded with a force many times greater than that of an atomic bomb over the Ural mountains. Most of the injured were hit by glass shattered by the sonic boom. About 3,000 buildings were damaged.

Scientists estimated the meteor weighed about 10,000 pounds, which happens to be the same size of the meteorite discovered near Haviland, most of which Stimpson owns and cares for at his museum.

The meteor in Russia scared people so badly with the flash of light and explosion that some people said the world was coming to an end. According to Western scientists, it was the largest explosion of its kind in more than a century.

Being scared of meteorites is not a loony thing, said Stimpson, who says he has a doctorate in biophysics. Having studied the Kansas debris, he’s concerned himself.

“I don’t know if anyone really listens to me,” he said. “But NASA should be spending a lot more time trying to find these things before they hit the Earth.”

Meteors in Kansas

Stimpson and his wife, Sheila, run their museum in a building accessible by dirt roads outside Haviland. To keep it going, they sometimes sell gram-sized bits of the meteorite for $2 on eBay.

The Stimpsons’ celestial treasure is thousands of fragments of rock and metal – olivine stone, iron and nickel – from a 10,000-pound meteorite that streaked across the North American sky from west to east about 40,000 years ago and slammed into Kiowa County at about 20,000 miles per hour.

That speed is slow by meteorite standards, Stimpson said. The Russian rock hit the Earth’s atmosphere at about 33,000 miles per hour.

The size of some of these things, coupled with the speed, can cause mass destruction if they hit a city, or even if they explode in the atmosphere. In 1908, a large chunk of space debris – either a comet or a meteor – exploded over lightly populated Tunguska, in Siberia, with the force of a 10-megaton bomb. It is believed to have knocked down 80 million trees. Scientists say a blast like that over a densely populated city could cause terrible loss of life.

Stimpson was glad to take the calls about what happened in Russia, not only because it was a chance to talk about his museum but because he’s got a “little stump speech” concerning meteorite safety.

“NASA has this obsession about finding life on Mars,” he said Friday morning. “NASA should be spending more time looking for these meteors and working to preventing them from hitting us.

“What we need is a way to detect this stuff within a few weeks and get into space quickly to try to deflect it.”

Stimpson said he has spent years studying the debris and the physics of the rock that hit Kiowa County. He and Sheila now own the “meteorite farm” where most of the debris has been found.

There were no humans in Kansas 40,000 years ago, he said. But should another meteorite that size hit a populated area like Wichita, “anywhere from 10 to 20 city blocks would be damaged. There would be considerable loss of property and life.”

Many of the meteors that tear through our atmosphere come from the belt of asteroids that circle the sun between Mars and Jupiter. Because of their circular orbit around the sun, most asteroids present no threat to us, Stimpson said.

But they sometimes collide with each other. That can change their orbit enough that some eventually approach our planet.

Most never reach Earth. They vaporize in flames from the friction of tearing through air at anywhere from 20,000 to 80,000 miles per hour.

‘Burst of light’

The Russian meteor apparently exploded about 18 to 32 miles above the ground, the Russian Academy of Sciences said in a statement.

Amateur video showed an object speeding across the sky just after sunrise, leaving a thick white contrail and an intense flash.

“There was panic. People had no idea what was happening,” said Sergey Hametov, a resident of Chelyabinsk, a city of 1 million about 930 miles east of Moscow.

“We saw a big burst of light, then went outside to see what it was and we heard a really loud, thundering sound,” he said.

The meteor released several kilotons of energy above the region, the Russian science academy said. It was probably about 61/2 feet across, about the size of an SUV, said Richard Binzel, a professor of Planetary Science at MIT.

The shock wave blew in more than 1 million square feet of glass, according to city officials, who said 3,000 buildings in the city were damaged. At one zinc factory, part of the roof collapsed.

The meteorite hit less than a day before Asteroid 2012 DA14 made the closest recorded pass of an asteroid to the Earth – about 17,150 miles. Experts called it a cosmic coincidence.

“There is no relation there,” said Paul Chodas, a scientist with NASA’s near Earth object program office. “It seems like we’re in a cosmic shooting gallery here. There were two very rare events happening on the same day. Pure coincidence.”

The asteroid was impossible to detect, said Bill Cooke, who leads the Meteoroid Environments Office at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., because it was approaching from the dayside.

“And as you know, telescopes can’t see anything during the day,” he said.

Russian officials said 985 people sought medical care after the shock wave and 44 of them were hospitalized. Most of the injuries were caused by flying glass, officials said.

There was no immediate word on any deaths or anyone struck by space fragments.

Some meteorite fragments fell in a reservoir outside the town of Chebarkul, the regional Interior Ministry office said. The crash left a 26-foot-wide crater in the ice.

Scientists believe that a far larger meteorite strike on what today is Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula may have been responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs about 66 million years ago. According to that theory, the impact would have thrown up vast amounts of dust that blanketed the sky for decades and altered the climate on Earth.

Contributing: New York Times News Service

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