Digging into the meteorite mystery - WRCBtv.com | Chattanooga News, Weather & Sports

Digging into the meteorite mystery

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WALKER COUNTY, GA (WRCB-TV) -- A 7000-ton meteor hurled toward earth Friday morning, exploding over Russia. But it was no science fiction movie--it was science reality.

But when does a meteor become a meteorite? Former Walker County astronomy teacher and Smith Planetarium founder Jim Smith explains.

"What's left if it doesn't burn up in the atmosphere. Once it hits the ground, that's a meteorite," explains Smith.

Here's the "family tree": Asteroids break into meteoroids which orbit the sun. Meteors are meteoroids which vaporize and disintegrate while passing though the earth's atmosphere. Meteorites are the pieces of the meteors which fall to earth.

Small meteorites strike the earth several times a year, but ones this size over Russia Friday only come around every five years or so. The last one similar to the one over Russia exploded over the nation Sudan in Africa in 2008. No injuries were reported.

Russia's no stranger to large meteors. One impacted the country in 1908.

"It hit the earth's atmosphere and skipped back out," says Smith. "But it produced a shockwave that knocked down trees for a thousand square miles."

But what took place Friday was a surprise despite the fact that scientists are tracking paths of large meteors. Around 900 of them according to Smith. The methods for doing this have to improve.

"Eventually we'll probably be able to put a transmitter on those that are of the greatest concern and be able to get a very exact motion of those," explains Smith.

Friday's landing meteorites caused so much damage mainly because they actually struck a populated area. This is unusual since 70% of the earth's surface is covered by water. Most meteors vaporize or explode over oceans and seas. Also, Friday's meteor exploded just several miles above the surface. This, paired with its tremendous speed, caused destructive force.

Scientists hope Friday's event will unravel secrets about our vast universe and how we got here.

"Analyze and find out more about the cosmos as it was when the earth was formed," says Smith. "Those [rocks] are probably as old as the earth itself, but with little change...whereas things on the earth change all the time.

A small meteorite landed in Pigeon Mountain in northwest Georgia several months ago but hasn't been found yet. But what's the chance a large meteor will slam into or explode over the U.S. or the Tennessee Valley in the future? It's not something Smith can yet fathom.

"I don't know what the odd are," admits Smith.

Ridgeland High School students in Rossville were awestruck by the meteorite's power. Robert Rippy and Heather Burke discussed it in their meteorology class.

"I thought it was pretty amazing that no one was killed, as big of an explosion as it was," says Rippy.

"It's really scary," says Burke. "And I couldn't imagine it hitting somewhere in the U.S. I don't know what everybody would do."

Their teacher, Justin Carruth hopes they not only learn science lessons from what happened, but life lessons, too. After all, homes and businesses were lost and hundreds of people injured.

"I hope they just see that it is real and it does affect them even though not directly," says Carruth.

Smith is sympathetic with the human side of the story as well, but hopes spectacular events like these will peak people's interests in science.

"In the meantime I hope that it will inspire people to enjoy looking up and seeing what they can see in the sky, because the sky is beautiful," says Smith.

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