Meteorites, the Media, and Mass Hysteria

Big HoleWhen I first heard about the recent supposed meteor impact in Peru, and the sickness it has allegedly brought to locals, I was just going to let the whole thing slide. Something odd happened in a remote area, and it was pretty easy to write the mess off as a miscommunication.

But this thing seems to be building up quite a head of steam in the media, so I suppose it’s worth a further look. If nothing else, it’s interesting to look at how this news was handled as it was touched on by various parties. Here are the basic facts that first came out:

  • Villagers in Peru near Lake Titicaca reported seeing a fireball trailing across the sky, ending with a loud bang. At some point in time (reports vary), a rain of smaller pieces of rock fell in the area. This happened in the middle of the day on Saturday, the 15th — but didn’t show up in the press until two days later.
  • Thinking they’d just witnessed a plane crash, local farmers went to investigate and found a crater. Estimates of its size vary, but they’re all in the range of 10 – 20 meters in diameter, and a few meters deep.
    • Along with some rocky debris, there were also reports of metallic lumps found around the hole
  • The locals also reported that there was “boiling” water in the hole for about 10 minutes, and it was giving off vapors described as “sickening” and foul.
  • Those that first visited the crater complained of headaches and vomiting. 7 police officers who subsequently investigated the situation also had to be given oxygen and rehydration therapy after they became ill.

Knowing just this much, a few possible explanations present themselves:

1) It really was a meteor. Using the crater calculator and a few reasonable assumptions, the impactor would have had to be about half a meter in diameter at impact — large for recent history, but not unreasonably so. This explanation has the advantage that it matches eyewitness descriptions of the fall. Weighing against this explanation is the fact that the meteor would be cold when it hit, so it shouldn’t keep any water boiling after impact. A meteor on its own is also unlikely to generate any vapors after impact — but perhaps the water wasn’t “boiling,” so much as churning as gasses trapped in the soil bubbled up through the groundwater.

2) It was space junk, maybe a piece of an old rocket stage. This also would match descriptions of the object’s fall (minus the rain of rocks), and could generate vapors after impact if the impactor included some tankage. Weighing against this explanation is that you’d expect to see a significant amount of surviving debris in and around the hole (which isn’t evident in any images that I’ve seen).

3) A combination of local geological activity & meteor trail (i.e., the farmers saw a meteor burn up, then found a hydrovolcanic feature when they went to investigate). This explanation matches the eyewitness descriptions of the fireball, as well as the crater, bubbling water, vapors, etc. It would, though, require a pretty big coincidence to explain the bang people heard (i.e., the fireball flew overhead just before a big eruption). Some reports mention that there is apparently a fair amount of geological activity in the area (geysers, etc), so this isn’t as far-fetched as it may first appear.

4) An additional candidate came from Pat Flannery on the newsgroup via Jim Oberg & Bad Astronomy — here, the crater was formed by the crash of a stray Scud-B missile. Again, this could potentially match eyewitness descriptions of the fall, as well as the crater’s size, the bubbling water, and vapors. Weighing heavily against this option is that if a Scud hit the ground, you REALLY should see some debris in / around the hole. Scuds fly to their target in one piece (i.e., the warhead doesn’t separate in flight, as is usually the case for ground-to-ground missiles). This not only makes Scuds cheap (they’ve been called the AK-47 of ballistic missiles), it makes them extremely inaccurate, and means that the whole body of the missile should be scattered around the crater. A fair number of images of the hole have made it on to the web, and none show any trace of large metal debris.

The most recent news indicates that geologists have arrived on the scene, and they have confirmed that the impactor really was a meteorite. In particular, a stony meteorite (something like 86% of meteorites found on Earth are stony, vs. iron). The metallic bits found around the crater are apparently magnetic, meaning they were bits of iron contained in the impactor. The “boiling” water and vapors could either be due to a chemical reaction of the impactor with the local soil & water, or else just something released in the formation of the crater.

So if this version of the story holds (i.e., nothing else is out there, working its way slowly through the news pipeline), only the illness angle is still a mystery. First reports suggested that a few dozen locals, including the police officers, got nauseous at the site. Later reports expanded the number of ill people to 200, then 500, then just “hundreds.” Doctors who have now reached the site have found no evidence of illness in the people reporting symptoms. I have to wonder if it isn’t just a combination of psychosomatic ailments and some crud the impact excavated from below the surface.

Stay tuned, I suspect we’ll be hearing more about this in the coming weeks.

I’d barely posted this when I found out about a good article on the meteorite on the L. A. Times website.

And, of course, I posted an update with even more news here.

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0 Responses to Meteorites, the Media, and Mass Hysteria

  1. Pingback: Sorting Out Science » Blog Archive » Good news / bad news in Peru

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  4. Has anyone heard about or seen any part of this meteorite being offered for sale anywhere?