The fall of meteorites and the passing of comets often become objects of fascination in the scientific as well as religious communities across the world. If Tamil Nadu government officials are to be believed, last week a meteorite fell within the premises of Bharathidasan Engineering College in Vellore district. It left a crater in the ground and blew out glass windows in nearby buildings. A bus driver who was standing close to the site perished; a number of others, including a gardener and a student, were injured.
However, the mysterious event has triggered an international debate about whether a meteorite, space debris, leftover explosives or even frozen waste from a plane passing overhead may have killed the man. Whatever is responsible for killing a man in India last week is unlikely something from space, according to the US space agency, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). “Initial assessments, based on photos posted online, are not consistent with something from space. Small meteorites do not start fires or cause explosions when they hit the ground,” the space agency said in a statement.
“To form a crater the size of what has been posted online would have required a meteorite of at least several kilograms. While more details may be forthcoming from local scientists, this is unlikely something from space,” NASA said. Indian scientists too have expressed doubt that a man in Tamil Nadu was the first person to have been confirmed killed by a meteorite strike, as the state’s top official has declared.
A meteorite is a piece of rock that strikes the Earth from outer space. The most famous case in the US happened in 1954, when Ann Hodges was hit by a space rock in Sylacauga, Alabama. As a meteorite passes through the Earth’s atmosphere, it burns and creates a visible flash of light in the sky. The bigger the meteorite, the stronger the light.
Meteorites tend to be black, rounded, heavy and most are attracted to magnets. They can be both rocky and metallic in appearance.
The lifetime odds of being killed by a meteorite are incredibly small: about one in 700,000, according to calculations by astronomer Alan Harris. However, a report by the National Resource Council estimates that there should be approximately 91 meteorite-related fatalities every year. Perhaps many meteoric deaths have simply gone unreported—a possibility supported by the fact that historic records are very sparse before the 19th century.
The last reported death from a meteorite strike was in 1825, according to a list maintained by International Comet Quarterly, a scientific journal. These include a—later disputed—report of an Indian man getting killed by a meteorite in 1825; another case of an Indian man getting struck in the arm by a space rock in 1827.
In 2013, a large meteor exploded over the Russian region of Chelyabinsk, producing a huge flash and shock wave, and showering the territory below with many small meteorites. The incident left more than 1,000 people injured, but caused no fatalities.
In 1827, a man was said to be injured after being struck in the arm by a space rock in Mhow, India. Other reports list cattle or horses killed by meteorites. A meteorite disrupted a wedding party in 1929 and a funeral in 1924. Perhaps even more strangely, in 2007, Peruvian villagers were sickened after a meteorite impact released toxic arsenic fumes from the ground.
At Tulane University earth sciences professor Stephen A Nelson published a paper in 2014 and put the risk of dying from a large, global asteroid or comet impact at 1 in 75,000. If that seems surprisingly high, it’s because when massive objects have hit the Earth in the geologic past, they have wiped out millions of organisms, even whole species. Most of the creatures aren’t killed from the direct impact, but from the aftereffects, which include heat, radiation, and dust that clouds out the sun.
Astronomer Alan Harris made a similar calculation, finding that a human being has a 1 in 700,000 chance of getting killed by an impact from space in their lifetime, with most of the risk coming from a large-scale event.