Look out. A burning hot space rock just fell straight into your living room, destroying all the things you care about most. Goodbye, sweet television. How did this meteorite end up here? Is it still piping hot and dangerous? And what are the odds this could happen to you?
Many rocky objects orbit our Sun. And depending on their size, they could either be larger asteroids or smaller meteoroids. If an asteroid was headed toward Earth, it would probably spell big trouble for you and many others. Meteoroids, on the other hand, enter our atmosphere often. Many burn up upon entry, becoming meteors.
These just aren’t destined to reach the ground. But plenty of space rocks do complete the long, hot journey to the surface. These are called meteorites. And it’s estimated that about 44,000 kg (48.5 tons) of them fall to Earth every day. Hopefully, it won’t keep you up at night, knowing a meteorite could be headed toward you this very second.
You are enjoying a quiet night at home, but things are about to get rocky. Far above, a meteoroid has just entered the Earth’s atmosphere at a speed of 10 to 70 km/s (6 to 43 mi/s). It would slam into the particles in our atmosphere, rapidly compressing the air in front of it. This would cause the meteorite to glow and heat up to temperatures as high as 1,650 °C (3,000 °F).
As the rock fell further and further through our atmosphere, the outer layers would start to burn off. Most meteoroids are so small that this burning, also known as ablation, is enough to turn them to dust. Only about 500 of these fully intact objects make it to the ground every year. That’s less than 5% of all incoming meteoroids. And most end up in the ocean or other unreachable terrains.
But with a one in 840 million chance, you’ve won the meteorite jackpot. You’d have a better chance of getting struck by lighting or bitten by a shark. Or both. The meteorite would come in at a low angle, smashing straight through your bedroom window. You’d wake up to the sound of breaking glass, shocked to discover a charcoal-grey rock about the size of your fist snuggled up next to you.
You’d recoil and nearly roll out of bed in total shock. That’s when you’d finally become aware of the aching pain on your side. Lifting your shirt, you’d notice a nice big bruise. But you’d be amazed that’s all the harm it caused. Cautiously you’d go to touch it, assuming the rock is still piping hot from its atmospheric journey. But you’d be surprised to find it’s barely warm.
That’s because small, rocky meteorites are bad at conducting heat. So as all the outer layers burn away, the core remains cool. Confident you won’t get burned, you’d pick it up to examine it closer. It has some heft, and you’d estimate it weighs somewhere around 4 kg (8.5 lb). Wow, imagine the damage that could have done to your face.
Suddenly, you’d notice a surprising odor filling up your old house. And it’s coming from the meteorite. Depending on the composition, the rock could smell like tar, wet hay or your compost. One scientist described the strange smell as similar to the butt end of a cigar or old dirt in a vacuum cleaner. Well, now what would you do?
You’d be one of the very few people unlucky enough to have been hit by a meteorite. A quick internet search would tell you about the Sylacauga meteorite. In 1954, a woman in Alabama, Ann Hodges, was struck by a meteorite in her sleep. And just like you, she miraculously walked away with only a bruised hip. But wait a second.
This rock that has fallen into your possession could be valuable. Maybe even a beautiful addition to some jewelry. You’d take it to get official certification. And depending on the rarity of its composition, condition of preservation and aesthetic appeal, it could be worth between five cents and $1,000 per gram (0.03 oz).
That would mean your little 4 kg (8.5 lb)space rock could be worth a lot more than a Tesla. Maybe you did hit the jackpot after all. Well, ok, the jackpot kind of hit you. But you can thank your lucky space rock that it wasn’t an asteroid on a collision course with your house.
- “Meteorite Facts: Interesting Facts About Meteorites”. 2022. theplanets.org.
- “Woman Rocked Awake By Meteorite Chunk Crashing Into Her Bedroom | CBC News”. 2022. cbc.ca.
- “The Difference Between Asteroids And Meteorites”. Nancy Atkinson. 2015. phys.org.
- “The Indonesian Meteorite Which Didn’t Sell For $1.8M”. Andreas Illmer. 2020. bbc.com.
- “Some Space Rocks Are Notorious For Being Stinky”. Jessica Leigh Hester. 2020. atlasobscura.com.