All your 'burning' questions about that meteor answered
Published Tuesday, September 5, 2017 7:24PM PDT
Last Updated Wednesday, September 6, 2017 5:04PM PDT
Meteors fire their way across British Columbia's skies about once a year, but it doesn't always happen at night when it's easiest to spot the celestial bodies' fiery path. Monday night's sky-rock was small but relatively low in the atmosphere, terrifying many people in the Central Kootenay and triggering fears an atomic bomb had detonated near them.
Any time an unusual event happens, people are curious about a lot of things so we've compiled a quick look at answers to what we've seen are the most frequently asked questions.
Why didn't NASA or some other agency detect it?
“That's almost impossible,” says HR MacMillan Space Centre Astronomer Derek Kief.
Unlike comets, which are like giant "dirty snowballs," gleaming with frozen water and rocks as they sail through space, meteors are exceptionally heavy, solid chunks of minerals that are often microscopic on the cosmic scale and don't reflect light in the darkness of space. They're essentially black bodies on a black background, "like ninjas," according to Kief.
Is it possible it caused a forest fire?
No. Kevin Skrepnek, the chief fire information officer for B.C. tells CTV News: “We haven’t seen any new fire starts today that would’ve been the result of it.” Thank goodness, because the forest fire danger rating in the direct path of the meteor is still high.
How far away was it visible?
The American Meteor Society has had more than 250 reports from eyewitnesses as far west as Campbell River, B.C., as far east as Saskatoon, Sask. and as far south as Butte, Mont. According to their trajectory analysis, "the fireball traveled in a southeast to northwest direction entering the atmosphere near the small town of Boswell and terminating near Meadow Creek, British Columbia."
Why was it so loud for some people and not others?
People who were nearest the meteor's path in the Central Kootenays were shocked awake, had objects rattled off shelves or dealt with pets panicking at the tremendous volume that came with the fiery path across the sky.
"Imagine if you hear a car crash and times it by a thousand, it was about that level of noise," Castlegar Source publisher Kyra Hoggan told CTV News. "My whole house shook and my poor dog -- who's not afraid of thunder or fireworks or anything like that -- but he was up in my lap crying. It was really loud."
That sound was the meteor exploding as it entered the atmosphere.
"Most likely it burst somewhere above the surface, broke into a bunch of pieces," says Kief. "That could be because of small pockets of air or gases inside the rock expanding and like popcorn exploding above the surface of the earth."
Is there a giant piece of space junk waiting to be discovered?
Sorry, it's unlikely you'll make your fortune on a meteorite! While scientists estimate the meteor entered the atmosphere the size of a basketball or maybe a large desk, it likely broke up into gravel-sized debris as the air and gasses inside the mass exploded during the extreme heat of entry into the atmosphere.
"I would expect there are thousands of pieces," says University of Calgary geoscientist Alan Hildebrand. "We call the area where the meteorites fall the 'strewn field' and I would expect it's at least 20 kilometres long, so a big area [somewhere northwest of Nelson]."
Hildebrand plans to search for that debris to learn more about the structure of the solar system. It may not look remarkable to the lay person, especially if it's mixed with other rocks, but meteorites are much heavier than they look they should be, are often glossy after passing through the extreme heat of the atmosphere, and are usually magnetic. Tick off all those boxes and you might have a meteorite on your hands. Experts need to verify it for certain.
Why are there still so many estimates instead of hard facts?
The figure of speech"needle in a haystack" is an apt description of what scientists are dealing with. While video and witness accounts of the location, duration, trajectory and even colour of the firecan give them valuable information about the origins and composition of the meteor, the real key is finding the tiny meteorites, if any survived the intense heat of the atmosphere.
"I think meteorites very likely fell," says Hildebrand. "The area out there is very tough in the sense it's mountains and forest for the most part, very rugged and tough to climb up and down searching. It's a lot easier if you're looking in fields in the prairies."
So what are the chances we'll be living Deep Impact in real life?
Meteors or asteroids threatening or actually destroying the earth are a popular Hollywood theme; think Deep Impact (1998), Armageddon (1998), Melancholia (2011), and the 1951 classic When Worlds Collide. But there's a reason those disaster flicks are so scary: it could happen, and scientists know it.
That's why they founded the first-ever Asteroid Day in 2015 to raise awareness about the risks posed to our planet by wandering (high speed!) space debris. Founder Brian May, an astrophysicist and rock guitarist for Queen, felt it was important for the world to know how much of a risk we face every day.
"The more we learn about asteroid impacts, the clearer it became that the human race has been living on borrowed time,” he's quoted as saying on the Asteroid Day website.
Awareness of the dangers and progress made toward detecting those threats in the darkness of space are part of what Kief talks about when educating visitors to the HR MacMillan Space Centre.
"What we're trying to do is predict the big ones, the ones the size of a building, or even square kilometres in size, because when the big ones come we need to figure out how do we deter it, how to we move it around before it actually hits and leads to catastrophe."