February 15, 2013

Sky fall: Answers to burning questions about meteorites

Frank Jordans / The Associated Press

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In this 1953 photo, trees lie strewn across the Siberian countryside 45 years after a meteorite struck the Earth near Tunguska, Russia. The 1908 explosion is generally estimated to have been about 10 megatons; it leveled some 80 million trees for miles near the impact site. The meteor that streaked across the Russian sky on Friday is estimated to be about 10 tons. It exploded with the power of an atomic bomb over the Ural Mountains, about 3,000 miles west of Tunguska.

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A: Bischoff says scientists and treasure hunters are probably already racing to find pieces of the meteorite. Some meteorites can be very valuable, selling for up to $670 per gram, depending on their origin and composition. Because meteors have remained largely unchanged for billions of years — unlike rocks on Earth that have been affected by erosion and volcanic outbreaks — scientists will study the fragments to learn more about the early universe.

Harris, of the German Aerospace Center, says some meteorites are also believed to carry organic material and may have influenced the development of life on Earth.

Q: What would happen if a meteorite hit a city?

A: A blast at low altitude or on the surface would result in many casualties and cause serious damage to buildings. The exact extent would depend on many factors, including the mass of the meteorite, its speed and composition, said Harris.

Scientists have been discussing for several years how to prepare for such an event — however remote. European Space Agency spokesman Bernhard von Weyhe says experts from Europe, the U.S. and Russia are working on way to spot potential threats sooner and avert them. But don't expect a Hollywood-style mission to fly a nuclear bomb into space and blow up the asteroid, like the movie "Armageddon."

"It's a global challenge and we need to find a solution together," he said. "But one thing's for sure, the Bruce Willis 'Armageddon' method won't work."

 

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