With everything going on here on Earth, we might have forgotten to worry about meteorites plummeting from the sky, or asteroids exploding into the surface.
Fortunately there’s “Fireball: Visitors from the Dark World,” streaming Friday on Apple TV+.
Full disclosure, filmmaker Werner Herzog and Cambridge scientist Clive Oppenheimer explore the otherworldly glory and eternal wonder of the 100 tons of space “visitors” that enter Earth each day, mostly in the form cosmic dust.
But boulder-sized meteorites, and extremely rare asteroids, can literally be deep-impact players – the latter capable of resetting the course of biological evolution (that didn’t work out so great for the dinosaurs).
As a public service for annus horribilis 2020, we asked Oppenheimer about 5 space visitors explored in the documentary, in ascending order of alarm.
The Doghouse Meteorite was nearly bad news for Fido
During his tour of the Center for Meteorite studies at Arizona State University, Oppenheimer received a firsthand look at the latest space arrivals, including the aptly named Doghouse Meteorite. The hefty deposit had fallen weeks before filming, straight into a canine-occupied doghouse in Costa Rica.
It came so close to the unnamed canine that there was literally dog hair on the meteorite, says Oppenheimer, who adds, “Fortunately the dog was spared.”
That wasn’t the case in June 28, 1911, when a meteorite fell in a village outside Cairo, Egypt, with a fragment reportedly killing a dog. The only known modern meteorite casualty might add to the theory that that God’s a cat person.
Ann Hodges was struck by a meteorite while on her couch in Alabama
Meteorite hits are so unlikely, you might say. Tell that to the late Ann Hodges, who was watching TV on her couch on Nov. 30, 1954, when a 8.5-pound, 4.5-billion-year-old meteorite fragment smashed through the roof of her Sylacauga, Alabama home and bounced into her left side.
“She survived, but it left a nasty bruise,” says Oppenheimer. Hodges is the only known modern human to be struck by a meteorite.
Hodges became a minor celebrity, selling autographed pictures of both the “Sylacauga Meteorite” and the hole it tore in her roof. Hodges, who died in 1972, used the meteorite as a doorstop before donating it to the Alabama Museum of Natural History.
The Chelyabinsk meteor seemed sci-fi, but was real
The 2013 Chelyabinsk meteor provided an awesome, and harrowing, scene when it flew across the sky in the Siberian industrial region, captured on dashboard cameras. NASA estimated the meteor was about the size of a bus and weighed an estimated 7,000 tons. It exploded on impact with the force of 20 atomic bombs.
“These are extraordinary events and, with the one that fell near Chelyabinsk, more than a thousand people were injured,” says Oppenheimer. “They were not hurt by the meteorite, but the air-shock damage to buildings.”
The Siberian destruction in 1908 was even greater
Chelyabinsk was chump change compared to the Siberian-bound fireball that struck near Russia’s Podkamennaya Tunguska river in 1908. Scientists believe it hit the sparely inhabited area with a 10 megaton impact that leveled an estimated 80 million trees near the site. Hundreds of reindeer were reduced to charred carcasses.
When the extremely remote site was first inspected decades later, the sprawling damage was still apparent – but not the offending meteor or asteroid.
“No fragment of it has ever been found,” says Oppenheimer. “But it flattened the trees over a very wide area. There is fascinating testimony of native people in the region seeing a fireball in the sky and then people were thrown to the ground.”
An asteroid brought an end to dinosaurs 65 million years ago
Oppenheimer visits the rundown Mexican beach resort town of Chicxulub Puerto, the unlikely center of an unimaginable apocalypse and geographical cataclysm 65 million years ago.
To demonstrate the total destruction that likely was a deathblow to the dinosaurs, “Fireball” relies on footage from the Nova special “Day the Dinosaurs Died.” The asteroid section about 6 miles across had an Earth-altering impact.
“It excavates an almighty hole in the ground and the seismic energy was at least a hundred times larger than the greatest historical earthquake that’s ever been recorded. Tsunamis would have ravaged shorelines thousands of miles away,” says Oppenheimer. “And it’s been implicated in one of the greatest mass extinctions that we see in the fossil record. Three-quarters of all species go to the wall.”