23 January 2010

Meteorite flies through the roof of Virginia doctor's office

I love these kinds of stories, and I can't believe me it took me almost a week to hear about this! On Monday of last week, a meteorite no bigger than a tennis ball struck the office of family physician Doctor Marc Gullani in Lorton, VA. That's the culprit herself on the right, courtesy of the Smithsonian.

Online news source The Post Chronicle reported the story as follows: Flaming Meteor Hits Doctor's Office. (Sigh). Doubtless the meteor was burning up as it passed through the atmosphere over New Jersey (several fireball sightings were reported, most likely corresponding to the VA meteorite hit), but when it hit Dr. Gullani's office not only was it not flaming (at that point it was moving considerably too slow, more like highway speeds) but it was no longer a meteor--it was a meteorite. Honestly it's just a question of linguistics and doesn't mean an enormous amount, but meteorite experts tend to get all up in a huff about these distinctions: in space it's a meteoroid; in the atmosphere it's a meteor; in a Virginia doctor's office it's a meteorite.

This kind of stuff happens more often than one would assume. There is a lot of stuff out there in space, and we carve out a good volume of space every year (back of the napkin calculation just for fun, please let me know if I'm wrong here I haven't multiplied in years: radius of the earth about 6400 km, distance from sun is about 150 million km. so the surface area of the circle formed by the earth is about (6400)^2*pi=~130 million km. and the circumference of the earth's orbit is 2*150 million*pi=~900 million km. So if I multiply those two I get about 1E17, or one hundred million billion cubic kilometers of space). In 1992 a meteorite hit a Chevy Malibu parked in Westchester County, NY, and just last summer a German teenager was struck on the hand by a small meteorite just before it made a foot wide crater on the sidewalk next to him.

The following list of meteorite near-misses in the last century and a half is borrowed from the story about the German kid on WIRED.

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