News From Space: “Rosetta Stone” Meteorite Lands in Ontario

meteorite_st.thomasA search is underway in the small community St. Thomas, Ontario for a rare meteorite that may prove to be a major scientific find. That’s what the Canadian and NASA researchers believe, and they are urging local residents to comb their fields and neighborhoods for one or more of the rock’s fragments. It all began on Tuesday, March 18th at 10:45 p.m., when a fireball streaked across the sky some 75 kilometres above Port Dover, Ont.

The fireball then headed in a westerly direction before vanishing at an altitude of 32 kilometres between Aylmer and St. Thomas. It was widely seen in Toronto, Hamilton, London and other parts of southern Ontario, where skies were clear. Peter Brown, the director of Western University’s Center for Planetary Science and Exploration, estimated the space rock was originally the size of a basketball, which then broke up upon entry.

????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????His colleague, Western University meteorite curator Phil McCausland, said one or more fragments “about the size of a golf ball or baseball” likely landed about five kilometers north or northwest of St. Thomas. The meteorite from this event is particularly rare and valuable because the fireball was captured by seven all-sky cameras of Western University’s Southern Ontario Meteor Network, allowing researchers to calculate its orbit.

Not only were they able to obtain solid data on the space rock’s orbit, but that orbit itself was special. Before entering Earth’s atmosphere, the object spent most of time circling closer to the sun than the Earth, having left its original orbit in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter long ago. Bill Cooke, head of NASA’s meteoroid environment office, said only one other meteorite known to have come from that kind of orbit has ever been recorded.

asteroids1As Cooke said during a recent press conference:

This is not your run-of-the-mill meteor fall. This is a very unusual orbit. We’re really interested in knowing what type of object was in this … We won’t know that until we find a piece of it.

According to Brown, this makes each of the meteorite’s fragments something of a “Rosetta Stone”, referring to the famous Egyptian artifact that was the key to translating ancient hieroglyphics. The comparison is not an exaggeration, as the meteor is likely to tell scientists quite a bit about the history of the early Solar System. As he described it:

This is like a poor man’s space probe. It comes to us. It’s going to tell us … what made the Earth, what made the other planets.

st.thomas_meteor1Hence why Brown is asking for the public to help look for the meteorite, which has been described as a rock that looks like it was painted black, and contact the researchers if they find it. The researchers are also interested in hearing accounts from anyone who may have heard a whistling sound “like artillery coming in” or a thud after witnessing the fireball, indicating that it may have landed within a few hundred metres. That may help narrow down the area for the search.

Brown noted that it’s the first time in five years that such a meteor fall has taken place in southern Ontario. The last time researchers issued a callout like this, the meteorite was recovered days later by a member of the public near Grimsby, Ont., where it had crashed through the windshield of an SUV. The fact that this meteorite did not cause injuries or property damage, unlike the one that exploded in the sky over Russia, is also a plus!


Eyes in the Sky: The Future of Asteroid Defense

asteroid_beltWith the recent passage of DA14 – an asteroid half as large as a football field and packing the power of a hydrogen bomb – and the rather explosive display that occurred above Russian skies, it’s little wonder then why NASA and other space agencies are publicizing various existing and proposed solutions to our “asteroid problem”.

Granted, there really isn’t much of a threat of an asteroid colliding with the Earth in the foreseeable future. And we also know that the meteor that graced the skies over the Urals was unrelated to the DA14 behemoth. But given that an impact could mean an Extinction Level Event, similar to the Cretaceous-Paleogene event that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs, a little planning doesn’t hurt.

neossat-580x317The first in a series of three existing or proposed designs is the NEOSSat – Short for Near-Earth Object Surveillance Satellite – that was built in Canada and was deployed last week on an Indian rocket with six others. In addition to watching space debris in orbit and tracking their movements, it will also be keeping a sharp eye out for asteroids that may swing by Earth in the future.

AIDA_mission_conceptThen there is the ESA’s proposed Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment mission (or AIDA), a group of planetary defense satellites that will are designed to collide with an asteroid, then push it off course. And after two years of planning, research teams from the US and Europe have selected the mission’s target – a so called ‘binary asteroid’ named Didymos – that AIDA will intercept when it passes the Earth by a mere 11 million km in 2022.

The third and final proposed solution is something that sounds ripped from the pages of a science fiction novel. Known as the DE-STAR, or Directed Energy Solar Targeting of Asteroids and exploRation, this satellite is essentially a orbiting laser that would be capable of destroying approaching asteroids 10 times larger than the DA14 and at a distance as far away as the Sun.

NASA_destarProposed by two California scientists – UC Santa Barbara physicist and professor Philip M. Lubin, and Gary B. Hughes, a researcher and professor from California Polytechnic State University – the satellite is designed to harness the power of the sun and convert it into a massive phased array of laser beams that can destroy asteroids that pose a potential threat to Earth. At the same time, it will be capable of changing an asteroid’s orbit – deflecting it away from Earth, or into the Sun.

Feel safer? Well, considering that the odds of Earth getting anytime soon are pretty low, and are likely to fall even farther once we get these rock killers destroyed. Once more, it seems that sane planning and sensible solutions are winning out over doomsday predictions. Good for us!