Headlines > News > Has the meteorite brought new disease to Earth?

Has the meteorite brought new disease to Earth?

Published by Klaus Schmidt on Mon Sep 24, 2007 6:18 am
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MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti commentator Tatyana Sinitsyna) – The recent fall of the meteorite in the district of Desaguadero in Puno, Peru, has already evoked many rumors and speculations.

Eye-witnesses have reported that the enflamed ball collided with the Earth and went inside to the depth of six meters, leaving a crater of about 30 meters with a gushing fountain of boiling water. After some time people felt an acrid smell and began to suffer from nausea and headaches.

A representative from the Peruvian Health Ministry hastened to blame this on poisonous fumes from fragments of meteorites, which contain cyanide.

Dr. Mikhail Nazarov, head of the meteoritics laboratory ay the Vernadsky Institute of Geo- and Analytical Chemistry, said that the reports from Peru describe phenomena typical for meteorites. But he pointed out that reports of the meteorite-linked “strange disease” sounded dubious: “In the past 250 years, 102 large meteorites have been registered; 70 of these have been found and 50 are kept in the Meteorite Collection of the Russian Academy of Sciences. But none have had any adverse effect on human health.”

No consequences were produced even by the unique Sikhote-Alin Fall (February 12, 1947), when a whole stream of meteorites with a general mass of up to a hundred tons crushed the Ussuri taiga in the Far East, covering a territory of 35 square km.

There is no information about any meteorite-related negative influence on human health. All in all, there are about a thousand registered meteorites.

“To the knowledge of scientists, the meteorite substance is harmless and sterile compared with the earth. No microbes, bacteria or extra-terrestrial viruses have been found on meteorites. As for radioactivity, it is much stronger in granite,” Nazarov said.

This is how he explained the events in Peru: “A powerful shock from the meteorite could have caused cracks in the ground and upset the ground water circulation. As a result, dirty waters from rivers and wells with poisonous gases could come into play.” He said it’s highly unlikely for a meteorite to smell like lead or silver. These substances exist in meteorites in negligible amounts, if at all. For the most part, meteorites are formed of iron sulfides. It has been observed that fallen meteorites emit a sulfur smell, but it wouldn’t poison anyone.

In Peru, the meteorite might have “targeted” iron ore deposits, which emitted their fumes. But the scientist is convinced that this is a local and temporary effect.

The Earth’s atmosphere acts as a shield protecting the planet from invading space objects. They enter it at the minimal speed of 11 km/s. As a result of deceleration, they lose speed and evaporate, turning into space dust or fall on the ground as meteorites – everything depends on their initial size. They may weigh from several grams to dozens of tons. Meteorites seem alike but they are different in composition – iron, stone or mixed (iron plus stone). Some come from the asteroid belt, others from planets; for example, lunar and Martian meteorites are fragments of rock from the Moon and Mars.

Nazarov explained that there are about 20 types of meteorites. Small ones (like the Peruvian) can do only mechanical damage. But big meteorites can lead to global environmental disasters. In the Mesozoic Age, 65 million years ago, all life, including the dinosaurs, was killed as a result of a big object (or objects) from space falling on the Earth.

The falling of meteorites is a sphere of the elements. Scientists are trying to keep an eye on asteroids but they change their orbits from time to time. Moreover, it is next to impossible to change the trajectory of a meteorite to avoid its clash with the Earth.

Nazarov says that the Peruvian meteorite is not very big. A 30m crater is considered small – some craters reach huge dimensions running into many kilometers.

What happens next? Scientists will extract fragments of the meteorite, study their geo-chemical composition, measure the weight, classify the type and register the coordinates of its downfall. Then the meteorite will be named (usually after the place on which it crashed). Thus, arriving on the Earth, a guest from space receives a kind of passport, which gets it registered in the Meteorite Society. Once this is done, we know all about it.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

Copyright 2007 RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.

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