How Does One Find a Meteorite?

11 August, 2014

Space rocks often enter the Earth's atmosphere. But they usually explode and burn before falling to the ground. About 70 percent of our planet is covered with water. As a result, most meteorites falling from the sky disappear on the oceans' floor. We would not know about them if it was not for an international agency.

How Does One Find a Meteorite?
Reporters gather around a piece of a meteorite, which according to local authorities and scientists, was lifted from the bottom of the Chebarkul Lake in Chelyabinsk, Russia, Oct. 18, 2013.

You may remember the meteorite that exploded last year 23 kilometers above Chelyabinsk, in Russia. Scientists estimate it was about 18 meters long before it fell to Earth. They also think it had a mass of about 10,000 tons.

Many people would have died if the meteorite fell in a populated area. Luckily, it did not. Instead it broke apart mid-air and most of the pieces fell into Lake Chebarkul. But that is a little too close for some people.

The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Preparatory Commission is a group based in Vienna, Austria. It says the Earth is visited by meteorites more often than we know.

The group records explosions made by meteorites that enter Earth's atmosphere. Pierrick Mialle works for the commission, also known as the CTBTO. He is an acoustics expert, specializing in the study of sounds.

He says since meteorites are sometimes entering the atmosphere, they are creating loud air bursts.

Perseids Viewing Map. Check out the meteor showers where you live!

The commission controls sensors and other equipment that watch for possible violations of the Nuclear Test ban treaty. Some of the devices are seismic, meaning they measure the movement of the Earth. Others are hydrostatic, meaning they measure the movement of the Earth's water. The Commission also uses ultrasound and radioactivity sensors.

Between 2000 and 2013, the CTBTO recorded 26 powerful explosions of large meteorites entering the atmosphere.

The B612 Foundation also studies meteorite impacts. This group estimates at least four of those 26 explosions were stronger than the nuclear bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.

In addition to loud noise, explosions create low frequency infrasound. Sound waves can travel very long distances at such low frequencies. But human beings are unable to hear them.

CTBTO stations as far away as the Antarctica recorded the explosion of the Chelyabinsk meteorite.

Mr. Mialle says listening stations operate anywhere from four to 15 high-technology sensors. He says that the sensors work like large microphones.

"They are called micro barometer because they measure micro fluctuations of the atmosphere. It's like a large microphone except there's no membrane."

He adds that some of the explosions are hard to identify immediately after they are recorded.

"For instance, the first time we had this, what was later called the Super Bolide of North Pacific, in the first few weeks all that was known was a large event in the middle of the Pacific. But we didn't know what it was."

The commission keeps contact with other agencies, such as the American space agency, that follow meteorites. Space agency officials later confirmed that the mysterious explosion was caused by a meteorite.

When complete, the CTBTO system will have 337 stations worldwide. And these stations will be listening for nuclear explosions and other loud sounds in the atmosphere.

I'm Anna Matteo.

*VOA's George Putic wrote this report. Anna Matteo adapted it into Special English.


Words in the News

meteorn. a piece of rock or metal that burns and glows brightly in the sky as it falls from outer space into the Earth's atmosphere

meteorite - n. a meteor that reaches the surface of the earth without being completely destroyed

sensor n. a device that responds to a physical stimulus such as heat, light, sound, pressure, magnetism, or a particular motion and then sends a resulting impulse (as for measurement or operating a control)

seismicadj. of or relating to earthquakes or other vibrations of the earth and its crust.

hydrostatic - adj. of or relating to fluids at rest or to the pressures they exert or transmit

ultrasound n. a method of producing images by using a machine that produces sound waves which are too high to be heard

Radioactivityn. the property possessed by some elements (as uranium) or isotopes (as carbon 14) of spontaneously emitting energetic particles (as electrons or alpha particles) by the disintegration of their atomic nuclei. (Whew, that is a tough one!)

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