The universe is full of millions of tons of debris of all shapes and sizes. Out in space these are meteoroids. The moment it hits our atmosphere, it becomes a meteor. And if it actually makes it through the atmosphere and hits pay dirt, we call it a meteorite. Literal tons of this stuff hits the ground every day, but often it’s so small we never notice. On the other hand, every so often a big one makes it through, and some of them have been pretty amazing.
10. Chelyabinsk the Viral Sensation
In 2013 a meteor lit up the sky over Chelyabinsk, Russia and the people were ready and waiting with cell phones. Head to YouTube right now and you’ll see hundreds and hundreds of videos of the meteor blazing across the sky. It was the largest object to hit our atmosphere since the advent of the viral video and people took full advantage of making it internet famous.
The meteor itself injured over 1,200 thanks to a shock wave that blew out windows across the city. When it exploded in the atmosphere, it was more powerful than a nuclear blast.
9. Tunguska the Awe-Inspiring
The name Tunguska is one many people recognize even if they’re not sure why. It’s one of the most famous meteor strikes in history and got a name drop in the movie Ghostbusters back in the day. Because it happened in relatively recent history, landing in 1908, it’s a standout in the history of meteor impacts.
The meteor landed in remote Siberia, and the impact was devastating. Eight hundred square miles of forest was destroyed, eighty million trees knocked over, making it the largest impact in modern history. In unscientific terms, it’s something of a miracle that it landed in such a remote part of the world when it would have been far more destructive almost anywhere else.
The effects around the world were remarkable. The impact was felt in England. People in Asia could read by the light in the sky as late as midnight. The object itself was only 120 feet across, but it was traveling at 33,500 miles per hour.
At 220 million pounds, the rock that hit Tunguska lit the atmosphere on fire with temperatures reaching 44,500 degrees Fahrenheit. The pressure and heat were too much, and the meteor exploded with the power of 185 atomic bombs. Amazingly, there were no reports of a single human fatality even though many felt the impact and were literally knocked over by it, many miles away.
8. Hoba the Bulky
There’s no doubt that many of the meteorites that have hit the Earth across billions of years have been pretty big. If the one that killed off the dinosaurs was seven miles wide, you have to assume it weighed a lot. But we don’t often discover large pieces of these things. They explode on impact or, in the case of extremely old ones, they just get worn down by years and years of erosion. But that means somewhere in the world there has to be the meteorite that qualifies as the heaviest one ever found. Hoba is that meteorite.
Found in a farmer’s field in Namibia, Hoba is a chunk of iron that weighs a stunning 66 tons. At nine feet by nine feet, it’s incredibly dense and when the farmer discovered it he obviously had no way to remove it. Over the years, pieces have been taken away for research and others have been cut off by looters.
Hoba is believed to be about 80,000 years old and is made of mostly iron with about 16% nickel and a tiny bit of other metal tossed in for good measure. The surrounding soil is loaded with iron oxides, which means that it likely weighed a lot more when it landed 80,000 years ago but has shrunk thanks to eons of rusting.
Aside from the remarkable size, Hoba also has the unique feature of being craterless. For a meteor of that size, there should have been a massive crater. Scientists have speculated that, since it’s large and flat, it may have come in a greatly reduced velocity, basically acting as its own parachute before it hit ground.
7. Vredefort the Powerful
Once upon a time the Earth probably was shaping up very differently than it looks today. Of course some major geological events have happened to reshape the world and life on it, such as the meteorite that killed off the dinosaurs, but we’ll get to that later. For now, consider the Vredefort crater in Africa which was not just a bigger impact than the one that killed the dinosaurs, but the biggest impact in Earth’s history.
A lot has changed in two billion years but as near as we can figure, when the object landed at Vredefort it left a crater about 186 miles across. The size of the meteor itself is thought to be somewhere between 3 miles and six miles in diameter. That makes it smaller than the one that is thought to have killed the dinosaurs, but the crater it left was much larger thanks to the velocity. It’s estimated that the meteor was traveling at about 44,700 miles-per-hour when it hit the earth.
6. Ensisheim the Old
Ensisheim was a walled city in France that saw the skies open back in 1492 and deposited a large chunk of rock from the heavens right on their doorstep. The locals had never experienced anything like it and, being 1492, had only one explanation: It was sent by God. The very idea of rocks in space was unheard of at that point in time. Factor in that it came to earth on a trail of fire with a sonic boom and you can imagine what they thought.
The town magistrate had the meteorite brought to the church where it was actually chained up to keep it from going anywhere. The Holy Roman Emperor would declare the rock a wonder from God.
Thanks to its special recognition and status, the meteorite persevered through the centuries where many others would have been lost. It stands as the oldest preserved meteorite in Europe.
5. 2008 TC3 the Tracked
The movie Armageddon was one of the big disaster movies of the 1990s and featured a storyline about mankind discovering an asteroid heading for Earth and their subsequent plan to blow it up and save the planet. There was a lot of goofiness in the movie but one of the things few people thought about when watching it was just how common it might be to track a meteor from space to the Earth. The answer is not very.
Back in 2008, the meteorite known as 2008 TC3 became the first ever meteorite to be tracked all the way to Earth. That means we saw it in space, watched it enter the atmosphere, and then picked it up off the ground after. That had never happened before.
Lucky for us, 2008 TC3 was small and didn’t pose any threat, but it has helped understand more about the paths asteroids take in space and may one day help us predict when they’re on the way a little sooner.
4. Valera the Killer
October 15, 1972 was a historic day. And, for one cow, the worst day of its life. This was the day the Valera meteorite came to earth in Trujillo, Venezuela. It wasn’t a giant meteorite but it is arguably the most unique meteorite to hit the ground in human history. It’s the only one we know of that has ever caused a fatality. It killed that cow.
When the meteorite was discovered, it was next to the body of a cow that had its head crushed. The townspeople subsequently ate the cow and the rock was given the prestigious honor of becoming a door stop. It wasn’t until some time later that the rock was studied and determined to have come from space. That confirmed that the noble cow it destroyed was the only life form in human history that was directly hit by a meteor. It’s not the nicest way to get into the history books, but it’s something.
3. Aguas Zarcas the Life Bringer
To many people a meteorite is just a rock from space. It’s interesting because it’s from space but it ends there. Those in the know realize there’s a lot more to space rocks than all that. Especially when you get into what you mean by “rock.” Not every meteorite is created equally and the composition of some of them holds far greater ramifications than many people realize. Perhaps the best example of this is the Aguas Zarcas meteorite.
The Aguas Zarcas meteorite was a carbonaceous chondrite, which is something extremely rare for a space rock. It wasn’t just a piece of iron, it was a remnant from sometime when the solar system was new. These kinds of meteorites are loaded with organic compounds like amino acids and nucleobases. These are the precursors of life, compounds that are the basic structures found in genetic molecules like RNA. It’s believed that these kinds of meteors may have actually kick-started life on Earth billions of years ago. To have another one land is like winning the lottery. Before Aguas Zarcas, scientists only had access to one other such meteor that was much older and less “fresh.”
The older a meteor like this gets, the more likely it is to be contaminated. Those amino acids and organic compounds may come from Earth, from the ground where it landed, from people handling it, and so on. So the sooner one can be found, the better. Aguas Zarcas landed in 2019.
The curator of the meteorite collection at Chicago’s Field Museum said that if he had to start a brand new meteorite museum and could only choose one meteorite in all the world to be in it, he would choose Aguas Zarcas.
2. Allan Hills 84001 the Confusing
It doesn’t have the most remarkable name, but ALH 84001, otherwise known as Allan Hills 84001 has been one of the most interesting meteors to ever come to Earth for one very small and very significant reason. This was the meteor that scientists thought might indicate the presence of life on Mars.
Back in 1996, the science world was abuzz with the potential ramifications of what researchers from NASA claimed they discovered. The meteor was actually found back in 1984. The rock came from Mars some four billion years ago way back when there was liquid water on the planet’s surface.
It was the later study that proved so controversial and enticing to many in the science community and the world at large. Researchers believed they had discovered evidence in the rock of microbial life, magnetite particles believed to only form as a result of biological processes. Or, in other words, life. Life that existed on Mars.
Some were quick to point out that this was by no means conclusive and not every scientist agreed. Confirming evidence of microbial life on another planet 4 billion years ago is about as hard to do as you might think.
Later research has led most in the scientific community to agree that the unique features of the meteor do not indicate life. But the impact of the meteor, not on the ground in Iceland but on our species and science as a whole, was felt around the world.
1. Chixculub The World Ender
The Chixculub Impactor is the less than intimidating name given to the object that fell from space and ended most of the life on Earth around 66 million years ago. This is the reason that the only dinosaurs we see today are in Jurassic Park. Three-quarters of the life on Earth died after this hit home.
The crater it left behind is 93 miles across and 12 miles deep. Make no mistake, this was a massive impact. And, good news, it could easily happen again!
There’s a theory that the Impactor broke away from the Oort Cloud, a giant, interstellar garbage storm at the edge of the solar system that’s full of asteroids and comets. The gravitational field of Jupiter may have snagged it and sent it on a path directly for the sun. As it orbited the sun, it broke into pieces and then on the return trip, one of those pieces hit the Earth and left it utterly devastated.