washingtonpost.com
Meteorite hits doctor's office

Linda Welzenbach and Cari Corrigan
Geologists/Meteorite Scientists, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
Friday, January 22, 2010; 12:00 PM

What are the chances of someone getting struck by a meteorite?

It almost happened Monday to Dr. Frank Ciampi at his office building in Lorton, Va.

Video: Sky surprise: Meteorite drops into Lorton clinic (AP)

"The floor just outside examination room No. 2 -- about 10 feet from where Ciampi had been doing paperwork -- was littered with small pieces of wood, plaster and insulation. Upon inspection, more debris lay inside the room. He saw three chunks of stone on the floor that together formed a rock about the size of a tennis ball, with a glassy-smooth surface. Then he saw a hole about the size of the rock in the tile ceiling, and a tear in the maroon carpet where the rock had landed," writes Paul Duggan of the Washington Post.

Geologists and meteorite scientists Linda Welzenbach and Cari Corrigan of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History were online Friday, Jan. 22, at Noon ET to talk about the incident, explain how it happened and answer all your questions about things falling from space.

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Cari Corrigan: Hello out there, Cari and Linda from the Smithsonian here. We are happy to be here to answer your questions about the meteorite that fell in Lorton, VA on Monday, and about meteorites in general!

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Vienna, Va.: Not to be to morbid, but are there any recorded instances of persons being physically hit? Given the size and reported speed of this think I would assume it would have killed this very lucky doctor.

Linda Welzenbach: Hi Vienna, The last recorded impact on a human was in 1954, when the Sylacauga Alabama meteorite struck Elaine Hodges in the hip as she was napping on her couch. There is a famous Life magazine image of her showing her injury.

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Huntingtown, Md.: Are there minerals/chemicals in meteorites that cannot be found on earth?

Cari Corrigan: Hello Huntingtown, MD! Most of the minerals in meteorites are found on Earth (and, as it turns out, Mars and the Moon), though there are a few minerals and compounds found only in meteorites. One of those, for example, is found iron meteorites (meteorites which are made of basically iron, nickel, sulfur, and a few other elements found in very low quantities) and is called troilite.

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Safety Harbor, Fla.: If hit upon the head by this rock, could this have killed the doctor? What is the speed of entry, at ground level?

Linda Welzenbach: I would imagine that the impact would have resulted in some type of injury. We estimated that the terminal velocity can be up to 200 mph.

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South Hadley, Mass.: Is the meteorite an ordinary chondrite?

Cari Corrigan: Yes, this meteorite is an ordinary chondrite. We are conducting analyses on it to determine its exact classification, but we are guessing it is either an L6 or an LL6.

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Falmouth, Maine: Was this part of a shower? Were there other pieces found elsewhere?

Cari Corrigan: As far as we know, this was not a shower. There have only been reports of this one meteorite having been found, so far, but there are plenty of folks out there looking for more! Many reports have come in of seeing a fireball in the sky at the right time on Monday night, but none of them describe more than one object, that I've heard.

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Morrisville, N.C.: Why no fire? I thought I learned that stones traveling fast through the atmosphere ended up red hot.

Linda Welzenbach: Atmospheric friction eventually slows the meteorite to the point where the fireball is extinguished (which is still several 10's of thousands of feet in the air). Meteorites are actually cool to the touch once they have landed.

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Alexandria, Va.: Exactly what kind of meteorite was it? I assume it was stone, but the article described some metallic content.

Cari Corrigan: We believe this was an ordinary chondrite (L6 or LL6). These type of meteorites do contain particles/grains of iron-nickel metal, which is why people check to see if meteorites are magnetic.

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Washington, D.C.: Could you clarify the differences between meteors/meteorites/asteroids? Thanks!

Cari Corrigan: Asteroids are bodies found in the asteroid belt, which range in size up to hundreds of kilometers across (google the NASA NEAR and DAWN missions for more info!). Meteors are rocks floating around in space. Meteorites are rocks from space (be it the asteroid belt, the Moon or Mars) that have hit the surface of the Earth.

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Scottsdale, Ariz.: When did this happen? Was there evidence of heat?

Linda Welzenbach: A fireball was seen at about 5:40 pm on Monday evening. Not all fireballs result in meteorites, many are completely consumed during atmospheric passage. If a meteorite lands, there is a "burnt" crust called a fusion crust that the residue of melted rock.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: What was the makeup of the meteorite? It looks carbonaceous. Any ideas what its origin is?

Linda Welzenbach: The meteorite is an ordinary chondrite. You may be confusing the black exterior with carbon. It's actually a glass that is the result of rapidly cooled melted rock. The interior is light gray, made of silicates similar to those found in terrestrial volcanic rocks: pyroxene, olivine and feldspar.

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Columbus, Ohio: Are meteorites hot when they hit the earth?

Cari Corrigan: This is a common misconception and has been asked very often here today! Only the very outer part of a meteorite is the "fusion crust" and that is the layer of material that has melted on its way through the atmosphere due to friction. There are estimates of how much of the rock actually melts and falls away (possibly the "sparks" reported in fireball sightings), but it depends on the mass, density, mineralogy and type of meteorite (iron or silicate material). Meteorites also break up in the atmosphere, so that confuses the issue!

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Cari Corrigan: By the way, the doctors in Lorton picked the meteorite up off the floor right after it fell through the roof and they reported it being cold. The inside of meteorites stays cold as it passes through the atmosphere, as well. So don't believe the movies that you see that show you green, glowing, hot rocks on the ground!! And, by the way, they are not radioactive. You can pick them up.

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Wheaton, Md.: I was leaving work this Monday at 5:30 p.m. near the BWI airport. Heading to my car in the parking lot, I was looking at the sky in a southwest direction and watching a plane land at the airport. I noticed a flaming streak shooting through the sky in the far off distance. After seeing this article and looking at a map, my line of sight was pointed in the Lorton, Va. direction. Would the size of the meteorite that struck in Lorton be capable of lighting up the Baltimore area sky? The smoke trail left by the falling object I saw was comparable in size to that of a plane vapor trail.

Linda Welzenbach: It's not the size of the rock that allowed you to see it, it was the altitude at which the meteorite was moving fast enough to be frictionally heated such that the exterior was incandescent (hence the fire ball). This happens several miles up into the atmosphere and can be visible for thousands of miles.

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Delray Beach, Fla.: At what latitude do meteorites strike the most?

Linda Welzenbach: Meteorites fall everywhere equally.

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Iowa: How can we know for show that it actually came from outerspace?

Cari Corrigan: Fusion crust (glassy melt layer formed as it passes through the atmosphere) on the outside, eyewitness accounts of a fireball in the sky at the time it entered, and we can measure certain elements in the rock that tell us how much cosmic ray exposure the rock has had. Yes, cosmic rays are real things and is radiation from the sun that impacts the rocks and changes the composition of their surfaces slightly. We can measure that.

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Norman, Okla.: Will we be able to know where the meteorite came from and if so will this benefit us in any way?

Linda Welzenbach: Until we get video footage from multiple locations showing at least 3 different directions (which will allow us to do a mathematical triangulation), we won't be able to trace a direct path. We do know, based on its type, that it most likely came from the asteroid belt.

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Washington, D.C.: Will they get to keep their meteorite? Also, are meteorites generally made out of the same kind of materials -- iron, carbon, etc.?

Linda Welzenbach: Meteorites belong to the owner of the property on which it fell. Meteorites are generally made of similar materials that are found in earth rocks, but their structures are somewhat different because they don't experience the same kind of geologic processing that is present and continuous on Earth.

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Washington, D.C.: I thought most of the "stuff" that falls into the earth's atmosphere gets totally burned up. Is the common that a meteorite gets through and what conditions have to be met for this to happen?

Cari Corrigan: You are correct - most of what hits the Earth's atmosphere is burnt up immediately (shooting stars!). Thousands of metric tons hit the atmosphere each year. Basically, the rock has to be big enough to make it through the atmosphere without melting away. It is almost impossible to know how many hit the Earth in a year (think about how much of the Earth is oceans - most fall in there just by percentages) - we don't track it. How many fall and are found relatively quickly we'd guess less than 20 a year. We can think of two in the last year off the top of our heads - one in West, Texas and just west of St Catharine's, Ontario.

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Washington, D.C.: While driving on I-95 on Monday afternoon, I witnessed the meteorite falling -- it was an incredible site and the smoke plume lasted for approximately 15 minutes before it fully dissipated. Given the size of the rock found and the plume, do you have any idea how big the meteorite was before it entered the atmosphere?

Thanks so much!

Linda Welzenbach: Size estimates can vary widely based on speed, entry angle and meteorite composition.

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Dayton, Ohio: Do meteors enter the atmosphere at a fairly common angle of attack and/or plane, or do they approach from all angles and all directions?

Cari Corrigan: All angles and all directions

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Princeton, N.J.: Does the meteorite belong to the person whose property got hit? If so, can the meteorite be of any monetary value, if it is a rare type?

Cari Corrigan: Yes, the law is that the property owner owns the meteorite. There is a market for meteorites out there which you can easily find on the internet!

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Vero Beach, Fla.: So much for our near earth object warning system.

Linda Welzenbach: Objects greater than a meter (which is probably the smallest detectable size) are supposed to be tracked. This was probably not that large.

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Richmond, Va.: So if meteors are rocks just floating around in space, how does it gain the speed necessary to hit the doctor's office at around 200 mph and become a meteorite?

Cari Corrigan: Material out in space is "floating" at the rate of 42 kilometers/second - so it is slowing down A LOT to hit the doctor's office at 200 mph! We can thank atmospheric friction for keeping the doctor's building standing!

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Hialeah, Fla.: Has the composition or origin of the meteorite been determined?

Linda Welzenbach: The meteorite belongs to a class called Ordinary chondrites.

Chondrites are abundant and represent the earliest history of planetary formation, but didn't become planets themselves. All that material currently resides (except for the ones that escape and come to earth) in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

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Alexandria, Va.: Is the parent body for this type of meteorite known?

Cari Corrigan: We haven't found an actual parent body for this type of meteorite (spectrally) in the asteroid belt that we know of for sure. The parent bodies for different types of ordinary and carbonaceous chondrites are very heavily researched, theorized about, but no smoking gun yet. We do know parent bodies for some meteorites though - lunar (Moon) and Martian (Mars), and the NASA DAWN mission is going to check out asteroids 4Vesta and Ceres, to see if Vesta is the parent body for certain types of meteorites that are not chondrites (achondrites, like howardites, eucrites, and diogenites)

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Alexandria, Va.: How old was the meteorite, and how did you determine its age?

Cari Corrigan: This meteorite, and meteorite of its type are around 4.5 BILLION years old. We measure ratios of elements that decay from a parent isotope to a daughter.

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Washington, D.C.: Shouldn't it make a big crater when it hits the ground?

Linda Welzenbach: Any size meteorite can create a crater, but generally most are small and might "dent" the ground beneath. There are very few craters on earth and most were created by extremely large iron meteorites. The current estimate for the Chixilub Crater (the dinosaur extinction event) was at least a kilometer in diameter.

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Baltimore, Md.: What is the largest meteorite ever recovered and where is it? The Smithsonian?

Linda Welzenbach: Hoba (estimated at 50-60 tons)is the largest known meteorite and it still resides in Namibia (too big to move). It's an iron meteorite and we do have a small piece at the Smithsonian

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Columbia, Md.: Hi Linda and Cari -- cool to see you on here, and happy to say I know one of you and have met the other. How often do people come to you with locally-found meteorites?

Cari Corrigan: Hello mystery friend. We get rocks from people hoping they have a meteorite at least once a week on average. We probably only wind up with one or two of those being a meteorite each year if we're locally. Locally found - not so many. Having spent almost a year total between us in tents in Antarctica looking for meteorites, we were pretty excited to have one fall in our backyard!!!

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Columbus, Ohio: Why do we have so few meteorite strikes in Ohio and why does Kansas have so many?

Linda Welzenbach: Dear Columbus- you are not being cheated! Kansas just happens to have a very large group of one type of meteorite called Brenham, which has been buried there for a long time.

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Herndon, Va.: Does studying these meteorites teach scientists any new information about the universe or our atmosphere?

Cari Corrigan: Mostly our Solar System. We have learned MANY important things from meteorites since we started studying them in earnest. Just a few examples - that meteorites can be ejected from planets (our Moon, Mars) and can make it to us intact. That grains exist in meteorites from BEFORE the birth of our solar system (presolar grains).

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Woodbridge, Va.: I heard a rumor that this was in fact part of an alien spacecraft that broke up in orbit. If you look at the pictures its pretty clear this was the melted nose cone of some type of craft. Your thoughts?

Cari Corrigan: If you look at the rock in hand sample (my hands are the blue gloves that you keep seeing on the news so I've done so extensively), it is pretty clear that this is just a plain old rock from space. Alien free.

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McLean, Va.: Are most of the particles that hit the atmosphere fragments of asteroids or of comets? I would assume comets, but of course they would be largely ice so they would mostly burn up before impact.

Linda Welzenbach: Hi McLean-You have part of it right. Comets do contribute dust and ice, which are seen a couple times of year- the Persied and Leonid meteor showers. There is a tremendous amount of micro-meteorites and what we call IDP's or interplanetary dust particles that are materials that weren't included in planet or asteroid formation.

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Germantown, Md.: Curious about how often you receive reports on recent meteorite finds/strikes, and from where you receive the information. Thanks!

Cari Corrigan: We get this information a few times a year and we get it from ALL OVER THE COUNTRY!

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Laurel, Md.: How much advance preparation warning would we get if something the size of the one in Siberia in 1908 was heading toward a populated area?

Linda Welzenbach: Hi Laurel,

That is the burning question we would all like to know. NASA conducts a near earth object survey and they have a website that lists objects by size and date of closest approach. It can be easily found on the web.

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Washington, D.C.: How big do you estimate this object was before it entered the atmosphere? Is this a normal sized meteor?

Cari Corrigan: Check out some of the other answers for your first question (we've answered this one a couple of times). Second question - yes, this is a normal sized meteorite (once it is on the ground, it is a meteorite). We find meteorite anywhere from sub-M&M-sized, to really large - one iron meteorite called Hoba is 60 tons (9 ft x 9 ft x 3 ft)!

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Paxton, Il. 60957: I watched a meteor fall in 1965 and took it home. It weighs 1680 grams. Where is a good place to have it studied? I am 54 years old and would like to learn more about it.

Thanks.

Cari Corrigan: If you're in IL, the Field Museum would have a look at it, otherwise check out our website for instructions on how to have us check it out!

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Downingtown, Pa.: A friend of mine has a meteorite and it is astonishingly heavy for its size. Are they all dense like that?

Linda Welzenbach: Meteorites are fairly primitive geologic materials which contain abundant iron. Stony meteorites are made of silicates with Fe, Mg and Al and particles of iron-nickel metal. Their density approaches three and iron meteorite are 8 g per cc. So yes, they are pretty heavy.

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Bethesda-ish, Md.: I often use the analogy to fried ice cream to help people understand why a meteorite isn't hot to the touch. You are starting out with something extremely cold (meteor/ice cream) and exposing it briefly to intense heat (atmospheric friction/deep fryer). The end result is a crispy outer crust but a cold interior. Meteorites aren't nearly as tasty though!

Linda Welzenbach: This is an awesome analogy and, with your permission would love to use it! I have tasted a meteorite, and you are right, I would much rather have the ice cream.

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Petoskey, Mich.: What will you do to study this meteorite? Are they so commonplace you can just look at it and know most of what you'd like to or do you have to do chemical analysis?

Cari Corrigan: Hi Petoskey! I'm originally from GR, so nice to see a Michigander reads the Post! We will make a thin slice of the meteorite (on a microscope slide) and look at it under high powered microscopes (to see textures and minerals) and in an instrument called an electron microprobe (to measure the chemical composition). We could tell just from looking at it that it was a meteorite, and we could tell that it was an ordinary chondrite. We estimate it is either a type L or LL, and texturally from hand sample, we guess an L or LL 6.

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Albuquerque, N.M.: A few years ago we were walking in the desert near Albuquerque when we heard a loud vibration, and it gave the sense that the earth was trembling. Looking up to the north we saw what appeared to be a huge somewhat slowing moving meteorite. Later we read conflicting information about whether meteorites can induce sound. They do! What's the current thinking?

Linda Welzenbach: In most meteorite recovery situations, it's because folks have heard the explosion as they break the sound barrier after the shock wave catches to it's terminal velocity.

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Vienna, Va.: You two are great! I really appreciate you being on-line to answer questions. I was wondering if you had samples from all of the major meteorite falls that are known in history?

Linda Welzenbach: Thank you very much for your kind words. We would love to be able to have available to the public and science, representatives of all the falls. Unfortunately, most are lost to the ocean or heavily forested areas, and collectors are generally quicker to get to the scene!

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North Potomac, Md.: Two hundred miles per hour is slightly faster than a high speed train. I would think that space objects travel faster than that, even when encountering the earth's atmosphere. Any object would experience ablation as it fell through the atmosphere, and a more massive object would retain most of its mass -- and speed -- as it fell through the atmosphere.

In other words, shouldn't a tennis-ball-sized object that hits the earth pack more of a wallop if it makes it to the surface? If the meteorite was a fragment of a fireball, would this account for the slow speed at impact? Is the earth's atmosphere that much of a factor in dramatically reducing the speed of a falling body such as a meteor?

Cari Corrigan: Yes, the atmosphere is a huge factor in slowing it down from its 42 km/sec in space to its terminal velocity of 220 mph. 40 mph faster than the Acela is allowed to go, if I remember correctly (you can thank my 3 year old for that nugget of knowledge). This rock did break up on hitting the roof/floor of the doctor's office, but the same roof/ceiling also would have slowed it down a considerable amount.

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Columbia Heights, D.C.: I think I saw this! Monday at around 5:45 p.m. I was outside in Columbia Heights, and something in the sky caught my eye. I was a meteor/fireball thing, heading roughly from north to south, and left a wispy smoke trail behind that persisted for 30 seconds or so. It was obviously much closer than a typical shooting star. Could it have been the same meteorite? Wish I had my camera with me...

Cari Corrigan: Absolutely - this sounds exactly like all of the other reports we've seen, some including photos! Sounds like you saw it - lucky you - I was on the Metro. Underground.

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Springfield, Va.: Does the color of the fireball tell us anything about the meteor? Some fireballs seem green, others white...

Linda Welzenbach: As fireworks of different colors are made by using different elements, meteorites of different chemical classes probably produce fireballs of different colors.

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Woodbridge, Va.: You're wearing the blue gloves they show on TV? Doesn't that mean you're worried about the alien germs and mind beams from the spacecraft? I knew this was a government conspiracy!

washingtonpost.com: PICTURE: Almost-close encounter: Meteorite hits Lorton doctor's office (Post, Jan. 21)

Linda Welzenbach: NO!!!!!! We wear the gloves to protect the meteorite from the oils and moisture of our skin. The iron particles will rust otherwise, plus we don't want to allow too many organics to contaminate them.

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Moonbase Alpha: If a moonbase were ever to be constructed, how much more likely would it be hit by space debris vs. a building on Earth?

Cari Corrigan: Good question. Mostly because of radiation concerns, Moon bases will probably be built underground or buried. Lucky for them because the Moon has no atmosphere to slow things down... however, we do find meteoritic material in the lunar rocks, and there have been meteorites found by the NASA Mars Rovers on Mars!

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Duluth, Minn.: Has anyone ever found an intact meteorite under the ocean?

Linda Welzenbach: Chlorine is a meteorites worst enemy! As far as I know, there have been no meteorites found in the ocean.

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Rockville, Md.: I understand meteorites are valuable to collectors...any idea what a meteorite of this size and type would be worth? Thanks

Cari Corrigan: We aren't really allowed to talk about the value of meteorites (someone might try to quote us on that and since we work for a government agency that wouldn't go over too well). Check it out online. There are lots of meteorite dealers and websites that can give you an idea.

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Washington, D.C.: Ladies --

You might want to post the Website link:

Smithsonian: Mineral Sciences - Division of Meteorites

Ed (yes, next door)

Linda Welzenbach and Cari Corrigan: Cari here -

was suggested we post this link to our website since we're getting to the end of the chat for those who want more information...

mineralsciences.si.edu/collections/meteorites.htm

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Alexandria, Va.: How often does a meteorite strike a structure, as this one did, or land in a street or empty lot where it can be found soon after impact? Maybe once a year or so?

Linda Welzenbach: Meteorites generally fall as a shower of stones and when they strike a densely populated area it's a good probability that they will hit buildings, although small samples may not penetrate a roof. It's much easier to detect or find meteorites on flat open surfaces such as streets, but their black fusion crust makes them pretty easy to differentiate from other rocks, grass or dirt.

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Massillon, Ohio: I guess the meteorite broke into pieces when it hit the building. Would it be unusual to find a unbroken one or do they usually break when they hit the ground?

Linda Welzenbach and Cari Corrigan: Not at all unusual to find one that is unbroken - this one had some melt veins in it that would have caused planes of weakness for breaking up.

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Austin, Tex.: Is there an up-to-date Web site that maps the locations in the U.S. where meteorites strike? Like an earthquake map?

Linda Welzenbach and Cari Corrigan: Not that we know of but that would be cool. Maybe we can get Google Meteorites next!

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St. Louis, Mo.: I have seen articles regarding meteorite hunters selling meteorites. Is there a market for them and how much are meteorites worth?

Linda Welzenbach and Cari Corrigan: Check that out online... it is easy to find and we aren't really supposed to discuss value.

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McLean, Va.: Can you learn anything about meteorites from examining a "fresh" one like this that you couldn't learn from ones that are found hundreds or thousands of years after they fell?

Linda Welzenbach: Meteorites that have been sitting on earth start to degrade and therefore some of the information will be leached away. Some of the current researcher are looking for organic materials in meteorites and a fresh meteorite would be less likely to be contaminated by terrestrial organics.

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Bethesda, Md.: Why do some meteorites that survive earth entry explode (such as in the 1908 Tunguska event in Siberia) while others land intact at low velocity? Is this related to the angle at which it strikes earth's atmosphere, the size, the composition, the initial relative velocity, all or some of above, or other factors?

Linda Welzenbach and Cari Corrigan: I think the answer is probably all of the above and then some, but no one really knows for sure.

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Washington, D.C.: Are meteors of this size tracked in space and from how far out (timewise) do we know that there's going to be an impact?

Linda Welzenbach and Cari Corrigan: Yes they are - NASA was tracking them last we knew (however funding issues change all the time). Check that out on their site...

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Annandale, Va.: Why wouldn't a meteorite crashing through the roof cause a fire? I would think that would be one VERY hot potato.

Linda Welzenbach: One of the other bloggers provided a fantastic analogy of fried ice cream. Meteorites come from the deep cold of space and only the outside few millimeters burn, the inside remains very cold, so when it slows to the point where there is not enough friction to allow the exterior to burn, it cools rapidly. No fire, no hot potato.

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Norfolk, Va.: Has there ever been a case where a meteorite hit and injured or killed an individual?

Linda Welzenbach and Cari Corrigan: There is a report of one woman in the 1950's being hit (in Sylacauga, AL) - she had a huge bruise on her hip (you can probably find this online - there is a photo) but the meteorite went through her roof, hit a piece of furniture and then bounced off and hit her. She was OK, but her landlord owned the property so he got to keep the meteorite! Bum deal. Would love to meet her and talk to her about her experience sometime!

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Key West, Fla.: Have any spacecraft been hit by a meteor?

Linda Welzenbach and Cari Corrigan: Not that we know of.

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Linda Welzenbach: Dear All, we want to thank everyone for their questions and enthusiasm. We've had a lot fun, but it's time for us to close. Keep your eyes on the sky (but no need to go out and buy a hard hat!)

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