Russian meteorite: Not the first strange event in the skies of Siberia
Science writer Surendra Verma looks back at the 'Tunguska event,' a mysterious occurrence in Siberia in 1908 which, like the 2013 meteorite, caused injuries and damage when the sky exploded.
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Since Kulik’s death in 1942, numerous scientific expeditions have been conducted to the explosion site, but no crater and no meteorite material from outer space has yet been found.
Q: What if it wasn't a meteorite?
A: The question fascinates scientists and science fiction writers. There are nearly 100 theories.
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The lineup of suspects includes a comet, a mini-black hole, an asteroid, a rock of antimatter or a methane gas blast from below. More imaginative explanations include an alien spacecraft that exploded in mid-air and an experiment on a "death ray" which got out of hand.
My favorite theory is that the famous Krakatoa volcanic eruption in August 1883 generated strong radio waves, which were received 11 years later at the star 61 Cygni, 11 light-years away from us.
The Cygnian scientists misread the signal as greetings from a distant civilization and decided to send a return message by laser. Unfortunately, the well-meaning scientists misjudged the Earth’s distance and fired a powerful beam that zapped Tunguska. The "extra strong" Cygnian message was all Greek to the local Siberian people; they did not have the required technology to read their greeting card from the stars.
Q: What do you think happened?
A: I believe – and overwhelming data supports my belief – that the Tunguska explosion was caused by a asteroid that vaporized 3 to 6 miles above Tunguska. The resulting fine debris and gases then dispersed over wide areas in the atmosphere.
Q: This is the "so what" question: So what? Why does this strange event matter to us today?
The Tunguska event matters because the number of victims could have been hundreds of thousands if it had happened over Europe instead of the desolate region of Tunguksa.
Scientists expect an event of this magnitude to occur once every 100 years. And we must not forget that it was an asteroid that killed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.
And by comparison, the Russian meteor that exploded [last week] about 15 miles above the Earth packed energy equivalent to only 30 Hiroshima atomic bombs as compared to the 1,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs of the Tunguska event.
Q: Are there possible connections between 1908 and the event last week? Or is it purely a coincidence that these things both happened in Siberia?
A: It's pure chance. Incidentally, the 2013 meteor blast was 3,000 miles west of the Tunguska blast.
Q: If all this worries me, should I go outside with an umbrella? Build a meteorite-proof building? Move to Mars? Or just stop worrying and learn to love the asteroid or meteor or whatever?
A: Don’t worry. Scientists are exploring ways of nudging, pushing, crushing, covering, nuking or burning rogue large space rocks that may threaten good readers of The Christian Science Monitor.
Until then, the best strategy is to work on early warning systems.
Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.