The first person in history to have been killed by a meteorite is believed to be an Indian man from a town near Natrampalli in the Vellore district in southern India. Authorities in the southern Tamil Nadu state are claiming that a meteorite had fatally struck a bus driver, injured three others, and formed a crater in the ground.
The authorities announced the cause of death was an explosion. The explosion had also injured three others, and shattered windows nearby. It was initially suspected to have been a blast from a bomb, however, after forensic and bomb experts searched the scene, no explosive substances were found.
A police spokesman told The Hindu: “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.”
The impact left a crater 4 feet (1.2 meters) deep in the ground, which is currently being analyzed by scientists. Local officials did, however, recover a blue object from the impact site, which was roughly smaller than an adult hand.
Two days after the impact, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa Jayaram said the unknown object was a meteorite, which triggered an international debate.
G.C. Anupama of the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, sent a team to examine the object, and has explained that the group has not finished their investigation yet.
Crater formed due to meteor impact at Nattrampalli, vellore. looks like a powerful impact. pic.twitter.com/POlim224pn
— Prashanth (@itisprashanth) February 7, 2016
The dean of the institute, Anupama, told AFP: “The team has received a sample from the local police investigating the event. The nature of the object will be ascertained only after a detailed analyses by the experts.”
It is still not clear if the man identified only as Kamaraj was killed by the initial impact, or the resultant blast.
Windows shattered due to Meteor impact at Naatraampalli, Vellore. Just like russian meteor impact . pic.twitter.com/5ioJdNBV1c
— Prashanth (@itisprashanth) February 7, 2016
The agency remains skeptical, saying that it was not possible for the event to be caused by a meteorite, suggesting that there must be some other source for the blast.
Dwayne Brown, a NASA spokesman, said in a statement: “While more details are forthcoming from local scientists, this is unlikely something from space. To form a crater the size of what has been posted online would have required a meteorite of at least several kilograms.”
In an email to Live Science, NASA stated: “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.”
Scientists from India have now added a new layer to the debate with a preliminary report by the National College Instrumentation Facility, (NCIF). The report states that the blast had almost certainly been caused by a meteorite.
The Indian Express reports that the conclusion was made after studying fragments of the suspected meteorite near the impact site, which showed the “presence of carbonaceous chondrites.”
— Peter Caltner (@PC0101) February 8, 2016
Anbarasu, a geologist and principal of the Trichy-based National College, stated: “Carbonaceous denotes objects containing carbon or its compounds and chondrites refer to non-metallic meteorite parts containing mineral granules.”
He did, however, explain that this was not a “common type” of meteorite. The meteorite has been named BEC 1, after the the Bharathidasan Engineering College, which is the site it was found.
Adimurthy, a senior space scientist at the Indian Space Research Organization, told The Indian Express the findings were “very significant,” adding: “The report may be clinching evidence. These findings should be shared with other material science experts.”
Scientists remain skeptical
Associate professor Dipankar Banerjee from the Indian Institute of Astrophysics (IIA) told The New Indian Express, that he thought it may have been satellite junk, and not a space rock, that caused the event.
“I will be very surprised if such a thing happened because of a meteor shower, normally meteor showers are traceable, and there are predictions for this. But, there was no prediction of this.”
What are the chances of being killed by a meteorite?
According to an email from Lindley Johnson, NASA’s Planetary Defense Officer, to Live Science: “It is so rare; there has never been a scientifically confirmed report of someone being killed by a meteorite impact in recorded history.
“There have been reports of injuries, but even those were extremely rare before the Chelyabinsk event three years ago.”
Most stoney meteoroids up to a diameter of around 33 feet (10 meters) are destroyed when they enter our atmosphere in thermal explosions. However, there are some fragments that do reach the ground.
These fragments have been known to cause property damage from time to time. A fireball from Kentucky to New York was seen streaking across the sky on October 9, 1992. When found, it weighed 27-lb (12 kg), and had punched a hole in a parked car.
There are ancient Chinese records of meteorites causing human deaths; however there have been no human fatalities reported in the past 1,000 years.
With that said, meteorites have injured some people, including housewife Ann Hodges from Alabama, who woke from a nap on her couch when a 3 lb (1.4 kg) meteorite fell through her house, bruising her hip.
Other falls include a Connecticut dining room and an Alabama bedroom that are well documented.
Watch this DNews video about the odds of a meteorite hitting you:
The destructive power
A typical 10 meter body would have the kinetic energy of about five nuclear warheads, which is the size dropped on Hiroshima. But, the shock wave it would create could cause considerable damage even if smaller fragments did survive, and impacted the ground.
These events occur around once every decade, with most of them not even recorded as they occur at sea or in a remote region like Antarctica.
However, in February 2013, a meteorite over Russia’s Ural Mountains exploded, creating a shockwave that injured 1,200 people, and damaged thousands of homes.
Watch this DNews report on the Russian meteorite:
In a paper titled: “The Probability of Collisions with Earth,” JPL states: “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.”