Despite meteorites falling to the ground often throughout the Earth’s lifespan, there are still many myths some stranger than others existing around these elusive fragments from space.
One common myth about meteorites is that they contain strange unusual minerals, elements that would bring Superman to his knees like Kryptonite. Meteorites do contain some elements which are slightly radioactive but they are no more radioactive than some Earth rocks.
- Meteorites are red hot when the land
Meteorites can travel at speeds of up to 70km/sec, and are burning up as they travel through the Earth’s atmosphere. This entry through the atmosphere causes the outside meteorite to become heated, change shape and often leave behind a burnt fusion crust. However, whenever a meteorite finally lands on the ground it is not glowing red hot. This is because of the ablation process which occurs on entry, the hot outside layer dissipates, as the meteorite has been travelling so fast only the outside has become heated. Also the meteorite has been in space for billions of years and its core is pretty cold. As the meteorite becomes nearer to the ground it has often slowed down and cooled enough that when it lands on the ground its often just ambient temperature.
- 3. Meteorites are uncommon
Bright fireballs zooming across the sky are not something you see all the time, and events like this are spectacular and rare, but this doesn’t mean that space debris isn’t falling to Earth all of the time. The Earth is hit with roughly 40 000 tonnes of space debris, bits leftover from the Solar System formation each year. Often some of the pieces fall into the seas and oceans and those that can hit land can often be pretty small. Not all meteorites are huge. Chances are if you were to run a magnet through the contents in your house guttering you may find some micro-meteorites.
- 4. Meteorites are worth their weight in gold
Meteorites can be valuable however this is not the case with every one. Larger meteorites would be more valuable than smaller pieces. Meteorites which are rarer would be of more value than typical stone meteorites. Pallasites are a rare stony-iron type of meteorite. They are distinguished by their appearance of nickel iron studded with bits of minerals such as olivine. Other meteorites from the Moon and Mars are rare. They’re thought to have landed on the Earth as meteorites due to an impact that dislodged them, these unusual meteorites very special to have in a collection. Media and hype is another way of a piece becoming valuable, I would imagine many are willing to spend some money on owning a piece of the Russian meteorite that landed earlier this year some pieces have reportedly been sold for over £7000. However, if you do perhaps stumble across an unusual piece of rock which turns out to be extra-terrestrial don’t give up the day job to live of the returns just yet!
- 5. Venus Fly Traps were brought to Earth by meteorites
The Venus fly trap is a carnivorous species of planet, sharing its name with a celestial body. This plant is one of a few that traps its pray and slowly dissolves it to feed. It also hibernates in winter, requires soil with little nutrients to grow and only grows naturally within a 75 mile radius of a town in North Carolina. It all sound rather extra-terrestrial! Makes sense then perhaps that this little myth was doing the rounds for a while that Venus Fly Traps have been suggested to have grown as a result of meteorites falling to Earth. A weird and wonderful plant but it is not from Space. Other carnivorous ancestors to the Venus Fly trap can be found around the world and there are no impact craters in Carolina.
- 6. Meteorites are bits of asteroids
Meteorites are pieces of stone and metal that fall and land on the Earth. Most meteorites come from broken pieces in the asteroid belt or bits that were left over in the formation of the Solar System. However meteorites can also land on the Earth from the Moon or Mars. Lunar meteorites share the same composition with rocks brought back from the Apollo missions. Martian meteorites have some pockets of gas trapped inside glass which is the same composition as the Martian atmosphere.
7. 18th Century museums threw away their collections of meteorites
In the 17th and 18th centuries, intellectuals began challenging faith and traditional view points in favour of a more scientific approach. During this time it is thought that many meteorites were thrown out as it was believed to be ludicrous that rocks could fall from the sky. It would have been an embarrassment to keep hold of these specimens. However, when exploring this, there is little evidence to suggest a mass removal but instead it seems a handful of European museums got rid of a few meteorites in total, not quite entire collections!
- Russia is intending to build a meteorite shield
A modern myth but after the impact in Russia in February, It has been reported that Roscosmos, the Russian Space agency have decided to build a shield to protect them from any future danger. The project which is fittingly called Citadel but it is not strictly a shield extending across the country. It is more of an action plan such as training for people, early warning systems and greater observations on other near earth objects. Not quite the same as President Reagan’s Cold War Star Wars initiative in the 1980s.
- Meteorites have brought alien life to Earth
A popular idea perhaps more likely to be expected in the realms of Science fiction has appeared in a paper published at the beginning of this year. In this paper, the authors claimed to have analysed a meteorite that landed in Sri Lanka in December 2012 and discovered that is contained fossilized diatoms (one-celled phytoplankton.) Therefore they suggest this proves that life was brought to Earth via space debris. However, when analysed further despite contamination being ruled out by the authors, the meteorite was found on the ground and the diatoms have been identified in great shape and the fresh water kind not fossilized at all. Not therefore concrete evidence of Panspermia.
- Meteorites always create a huge crater
Craters like the Barringer Meteor crater in near Flagstaff, Arizona is the result of a meteorite impact with Earth. The crater is 1.2km wide and is thought to have been formed 50 000 years ago. Fragments of iron meteorites have been recovered, but they are small in comparison to the size of crater as most of the meteorite would have burnt up on entry. On the other hand many other meteorites fall to the ground and leave a hole no bigger than the meteorite itself, like the Bovedy meteorite which landed in Northern Ireland in 1969. To identify the crater a white flag was left sticking out of the ground marking the site of impact.
(Article by Martina Redpath, Education Support Officer)