No, the sky isn't falling. But, as we earthlings were reminded when a large meteor exploded Feb. 15 over Russia, things do fall from the sky.
“This space debris is out there,” said Jack Dunn, coordinator of the Mueller Planetarium in Lincoln. “Just mathematically, sooner or later the Earth is going to get hit again.”
The Russian meteor, perhaps 50 feet across before it fragmented in midair, is said to be the largest space object to strike the Earth in more than a century.
On June 30, 1908, an asteroid or meteor possibly 65 to 100 feet in size burst in the air three to six miles above Siberia, knocking down 80 million trees over 830 square miles. That “Tunguska event” is the largest impact on Earth in recorded history.
Of course, a city-size asteroid about six miles across impacted the Yucatan peninsula 65 million years ago, which many say led to the extinction of dinosaurs, though the cause of their extinction is still debated.
Scientists, who take a long view, aren't fearful that the end is near. But they know that rocks fall from outer space — including a 165-pounder found in Nebraska.
“It's a big piece, definitely bigger than the fragments found so far in Russia,” said geologist Priscilla Grew, director of the University of Nebraska State Museum. “It's extra special to us.”
Known as the Bayard Meteorite, it was found in 1982 on a farm near the town of Bayard in the Nebraska Panhandle. For the past year it has been part of a Minerals and Meteorites exhibit at the museum's Morrill Hall, 14th and Vine Streets in Lincoln.
The oval-shaped meteorite measures about two feet across. It consists of mostly stony material, with enough nickel and iron to make it magnetic.
“It's wonderful — I would say priceless,” said geologist R.M. Matt Joeckel, who curated the exhibit. “It's pretty unusual to find one that big, that easily, without having to dig. There's a little bit of romance about this.”
“It sends a chill up and down my spine,” he said. “It's a fantastic, almost magical, realization that the rocky planets, the asteroids and the stony meteorites are made of the same general kind of stuff.”
The heavens long have inspired mankind's poetry, music, wonder and romance.
Who hasn't stargazed far from the lights of cities, pondering the Milky Way?
Or smiled at the Man in the Moon? Or wished upon a falling star?
Or just wondered what's “out there”?
Some UFO enthusiasts even speculate that an alien object shot down the recent Russian meteor.
The Bayard Meteorite is authenticated, but Joeckel said that every year in his nearly 13 in Nebraska, people have brought in objects that they fervently hoped were meteorites. When told they are not, folks are deeply disappointed.
“Sometimes people are crestfallen,” he said. “Sometimes they are angry and argumentative.”
Grew, the museum director, said geologists refer to people's hoped-for look-alike rocks as “meteor-wrongs,” as opposed to meteorites.
She said the museum also displays a meteorite that fell in 1948 in Furnas County, Neb., causing a sonic boom that broke windows. That was an observed “fall,” while the Bayard Meteorite is termed a “find.”
“I think any meteorite is exciting,” she said. “Just to think that they have traveled through outer space.”
Art Struempler, a chemistry professor at Chadron State College, said he discovered the Bayard Meteorite while sorting through a junk pile on a farm owned by him and his family in Scotts Bluff County. For years after that, the rock was kept in Chadron.
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A B-17 pilot who flew 26 missions over Germany during World War II, Struempler died in 2004 at age 83.
His son, Mike Struempler of Fort Collins, Colo., loaned the meteorite to the state museum in Nebraska at the suggestion of Mark Brohman, a longtime friend who is director of the Nebraska Environmental Trust and a board member at Morrill Hall.
Struempler said he believes that the meteorite is about the 27th-largest on record. It can remain indefinitely at the Nebraska museum, he said, the main condition being continued excellent security.
“It's cool to have it in the family,” he said, “and it's a cool thing to share.”
Chadron State College said last year that at the time the Bayard Meteorite was found, it was one of about 2,600 meteorite finds in the world. Most meteors burn up between 30 and 50 miles above land. The meteor that exploded last month over Russia caused a sonic boom that broke glass in buildings and injured about 1,000 people. It wasn't detected in advance, scientists say, because it came from the direction of the sun.
The chilling coincidence was that an asteroid about 150 feet wide was being closely tracked and on the same day flew within 17,150 miles of Earth inside the orbit of some communications and weather satellites.
Earth wasn't in danger, but what if a large asteroid is headed straight for our planet?
Scientists say the best hope is some kind of deflection, possibly by sending up an object whose gravitational pull would nudge the trajectory of the asteroid away from Earth. For now, that is theoretical.
“The important thing is that you have to detect it far out,” said Dunn, of the Mueller Planetarium. “We need more telescopes in orbit, and then we need to find a way to go out and test the theories.”
Some have wondered about a nuclear strike on an asteroid, but Dunn said “nudging” is the better idea. “The worst would be a nuke. Then we'd be hit by a radioactive rain of meteors.”
The best effect from the Russian meteor and the asteroid fly-by on the same day, scientists agree, is that the topic of space debris got everyone's attention.
Even now, Hollywood scripts about Doomsday asteroids are probably in the works.
“I tell all my audiences,” Dunn quipped, “not to expect Bruce Willis to hop on a shuttle and stop it. Right now, we just have to thank our lucky stars.”
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