Monday, February 8, 2016 4:38 pm
Was it a meteorite? Was it a grenade, a bomb?
Scientists and astrophysicists are trying to fathom what exactly killed an Indian driver, injured three others, smashed window panes and glass screens of vehicles and created a four-feet deep crater at a college campus in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, at the weekend.
Witnesses believed it was a meteorite that fell from the sky near a cafeteria inside the Bharathidasan Engineering College campus on Saturday.
G. Baskar, principal of the college in Tamil Nadu’s Vellore district, said it was and went ahead to suspend classes till Wednesday and send home students.
“There was a noise like a big explosion,” said Mr. Baskar. “It was an abnormal sound that could be heard for at least 3 kilometres away,” he added.
Mr. Baskar described the tiny rock fragments observed at the site of the explosion on Saturday as “blue-ish black” in color.
“We can rule out the possibility of any terror angle or sabotage. Not a single ingredient pertaining to any kind of explosive was found at the site. We suspect it to be a meteorite fall,” a top police official told The Hindu on Saturday.
After a similar blast was reported in a paddy field at Alangayam in the same district on January 26, a senior Astrophysicist of the National Physical Laboratory, Ahmedabad, came to the district for a study.
“The scientist was camping nearby and rushed to the college soon after hearing the news of the blast. We are convinced that it is a meteorite that fell with high velocity. In the earlier incident, local people remember having seen an object falling from the sky in the field,” the official said.
The man who died, V. Kamaraj, who operated a bus for the college, suffered severe injuries while he was walking close to the area where the object struck. He died Saturday. Three others, including two gardeners working inside the campus and a student at the college, were also injured during the incident.
J. Jayalalithaa, Tamil Nadu’s chief minister, said in a statement Sunday that Mr. Kamaraj died after a meteorite fell inside the college campus. She didn’t elaborate on what led authorities to believe the crater was caused by a meteorite.
A meteoroid is a small particle from an asteroid or comet that goes around the sun. When a meteoroid enters the Earth’s atmosphere it burns up, often seen as the light phenomenon known as a shooting star. A meteorite is a meteoroid that survives entry into the atmosphere and falls to Earth.
Sujan Sengupta, an associate professor at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics said there was “extremely little possibility of a small meteorite falling to the ground” and killing someone.
“If a bigger asteroid enters the Earth’s atmosphere, it will disintegrate and travel in different directions and because most of the Earth’s surface is covered in water, it is most-likely to fall into the ocean,” Mr. Sengupta said.
According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, there is no record “in modern times of any person being killed by a meteorite.”
“An individual’s chance of being killed by a meteorite is small, but the risk increases with the size of the impacting comet or asteroid,” NASA says on its website. A meteoroid larger than half a mile in diameter could have worldwide effects. If something smaller than that hits the Earth, it is likely to cause local damage.
The space agency’s “Near Earth Object Program” detects, tracks and characterizes potentially hazardous asteroids and comets that might approach Earth. As of Feb. 5, NASA says it has discovered 879 asteroids with a diameter of approximately a kilometer or larger. Experts say smaller asteroids and meteorites are harder, if not impossible, to track.
In 2013, a meteor explosion over Russia’s Ural Mountains left around 1,000 people injured, mostly by flying glass. Around 3,000 buildings were damaged. Russia’s Academy of Sciences said at the time that the meteor was several yards in diameter and weighed around 10 metric tons.
Ms. Jayalalithaa, the chief minister, announced compensation of 100,000 rupees ($1,473) for the family of the driver and 25,000 rupees to each of those injured.
*With reports by The Hindu and Wall Street Journal