Sunday, June 14, 2009

Bad Reporting on Meteor strike

If you've been watching the news this week, you might have seen a fantastic report about a boy in Germany who was amazingly struck by a small fragment of the universe! According to initial reports, the pea-size meteorite was all that was left of the rock from space after mostly burning up in the atmosphere. The initial report, copied by all the on-line mainstream news organizations I looked at, stated the meteorite was traveling at a speed of 30,000 mph, with a loud bang and bright light struck a glancing blow to the boy, bouncing off him and burying itself into the road where it created a foot-wide mini-crater.

At first read, this is an amazing tale of survival just removed from a possible horrible death!

But lucky for me, I paid attention to my science and math studies in school. Did you? Do you recognize the warning signs of sensationalist reporting?

For  fun, go outside and find a pea-sized stone. Now, wander around and locate a nice patch of sandy soil. We won't even bother with a hard surface at this point. Next, the fun part! With all your might, throw that little stone into the sand and see what kind of crater it makes. With luck, you will see a tiny crater and watch some of the ejected material fly out.  Now try it on a driveway with asphalt. No such result, eh? Imagine with your mind now, how much force a stone that size would have to impart to create a foot-wide crater in that surface. 

But wait- the asteroid WAS traveling at 30,000 mph, wasn't it? THAT should certainly give it enough energy!

Hmmm. Wait a minute though. Just how fast IS 30,000 mph? This is where your schooling should have come in handy. We need something going REALLY fast - like a bullet- to make a comparison.

Your average US Marine fighting in Afghanistan is shooting a .223 caliber bullet from his rifle. The military .223 round is a little bigger than pea-sized, but good enough for our purposes. The .223 flies out the barrel at 2750 feet/second. If you know your math and how to tell time, we can compare these object speeds. 2750 f/s is very close to a half mile per second (2640 ft). So let's use that for easy comparison.

.5 mi./sec. times 60 seconds = 30 miles/minute. That bullet is going about 30 miles in one minute. Now, 30 mi./min. times 60 minutes = 1800 miles/hour. So, our bullet is traveling about 1800 mph.

According to initial reports, the boy was hit in the hand. Now, I know that a .223 traveling 1800 mph hitting a boy's hand is going to do something more than leave a slight scar. If it doesn't take OFF his hand, he's going to lose a finger or AT LEAST go to the hospital for major surgery.

But the meteorite was supposedly traveling 30,000 mph. As opposed to a bullet at 1800 mph. At that speed, I think the boy would not only lose his hand, but the energy from that fast an object would have probably torn off his arm- if not obliterating him and leaving a much larger smoking hole in the ground. No wonder there was a loud sound- A bullet leaves a large crack because it breaks the speed of sound, creating a shock wave (the boom) at about 760 mph.

Well, the initial reports did say there was a foot sized crater, didn't they? Funny that- but while all the reports showed a smiling German boy holding his pea-sized rock, there were NO photos of the so-called crater... isn't that strange?

Well, with all of this thinking, I began to immediately suspect the story was false. Looking at the story today, I find that amateur astronomers and meteor collectors have been doing their own sleuthing, and I may be justified in my doubts. 

Turns out that NO one has seen the so-called crater. And the supposed professional who examined the rock and declared it a meteorite, was a guy from the local public observatory. No professional space geologist has looked at this object yet. No one has ever known a small meteorite like this to have ever produced a small crater. The rules of Terminal Velocity show that these objects just ding onto the ground. It takes a stony or iron meteorite of significant weight to do damage such as the car damaged by a stony meteorite in New England a few years ago.

So we have a boy, 14 years old, reporting this incident, which happened to himself, with no witnesses, no authentic verification of the object, and no "smoking hole"... are you getting the picture?

The astronomical community is not convinced. And neither am I. Were you?

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