Space is a pretty big place.
Not the most groundbreaking piece of information that has ever been written, but it’s pretty hard to comprehend sometimes just how big the void that our planet flies through is.
It’s a scale that the human mind can’t wrap our heads around.
For example, take our closest celestial neighbor. Not Mars, not Venus. The moon. Our very own natural satellite.
It feels like it should be very close to us. It is the only celestial body that we can see from earth, so it must be close, right?
And it is. In astronomical terms, at least.
But if you chose to drive a car straight up into space, at 60 miles an hour, it would take you six months of constant driving just to reach it (and probably an angry phone call from whatever scientist you stole their space-traveling car from).
The point we are trying to make is that space is mostly full of… well, space.
There’s not much there, and whatever is there is separated by light-years of more nothingness.
This brings us to the interesting subject of meteors.
These space-bound objects, leftover from the formation of our solar system, are probably the most common object that is found in space by a wide margin.
But do they ever interact with other objects? Do they ever hit other meteors or planets? Could they ever hit Earth?
Well, that’s what this article is here to discuss.
We’re going to explain exactly what meteors are and how likely they are to hit the Earth, as well as discuss some impact events that have happened in the past (spoilers for a hundred-year-old and 10-year-old rocks falling to Earth, I guess).
What Is A Meteor?
First, we need to establish what exactly a meteor is, as well as a few other terms that these smaller space rocks are known by, and why that is important for us in this article.
So, a meteor is simply a small asteroid, which is a rocky, solid body orbiting the sun between Mars and Jupiter, made up of many types of rock and metal, often both.
Although technically, this isn’t accurate.
See, meteor is a term that is usually applied to a rocky or metallic object that has begun to enter the atmosphere of a planet.
The technical term that is used when they are still found in the vacuum of space is meteoroids.
This is also different from the term meteorite, which is likely the term you have heard most when talking about these kinds of celestial objects.
A meteorite is simply a meteoroid that survives its entry into the atmosphere of a planet and makes it down to the surface.
It’s not necessarily a stone, but it could be.
Usually, though, it’s a chunk of rock that was once part of a larger solar body, usually from a comet or an asteroid.
Meteorites range in size, anywhere from microscopic grains of dust to huge boulders and even whole mountains.
Do Meteor/Meteorites Hit Earth?
So, now that we have a good basis for our knowledge of what a celestial body entering our atmosphere is called, let’s get back to the main question: Do meteors ever hit Earth?
Well, thanks to the information in the last section, we can confidently say: Yes. And no. Technically.
As we already mentioned, a meteor is a rocky or metallic object that has entered Earth’s atmosphere but hasn’t made contact with the surface of the planet.
This is why, despite millions of meteors coming into contact and passing through Earth’s atmosphere, we can confidently say that no meteor has ever hit the Earth before.
Meteorites, however, are a whole other story.
By its definition, being a meteor that has made it to the surface of a planet, virtually every meteorite that we know of has hit the planet.
They are still relatively rare, at least when compared to how many meteors enter the atmosphere.
Still, as of July 2021, scientists have recorded over 65,750 examples of meteorites hitting the earth.
And those are just the well-documented ones, the ones we know for sure hit the Earth!
There are likely thousands, if not tens of thousands of other meteorites, that have hit the Earth in the last several thousand years.
And don’t even get us started on all the impact strikes from prehistoric times!
Recorded Meteorite Impact
When we think about meteorite impacts, we tend to jump to the biggest scale possible, the truly world-changing, literally Earth-shattering events.
Massive craters, such as the Chicxulub crater, brought about the end of the dinosaurs. The famous Meteor Crater in Arizona.
The Tenoumer crater in the Sahara Desert.
These craters all paint vivid images of great scars that have been left on the Earth and that have brought the end of ages.
You can imagine how these sorts of impacts might have a, well, massive impact on our modern-day civilization.
Thankfully, it is highly unlikely that these sorts of things will happen without us knowing well in advance in the coming thousand years, certainly not in our lifetimes.
This is for two reasons: Meteors of this size, throughout Earth’s history, only happen every few tens of million years, if that.
Asteroids and Meteors the size of the one that wiped out the dinosaurs happen on an even less frequent basis, about once every 100 million, or even 150 million years!
So we’re not due another impact of this magnitude for a good while at this point.
However, that doesn’t mean that smaller impacts from meteorites don’t happen from time to time, far from it.
These sorts of impacts, from medium to smaller-sized meteorites, meteorites between 10 to 200 meters, happen noticeably more often.
Enough for evidence of several of them to have happened within the last 2 to 10 thousand years.
The two most well-known meteorite impacts are probably the famous Tunguska meteor of 1908 and the Chelyabinsk meteor of 2013, both of which took place in Russia.
The Tunguska impact event is probably the largest meteorite impact that has ever been recorded in human history.
Whilst the details are a little unclear, on account of it happening in a relatively remote area of land, scientists believe that the Tunguska impact was equivalent to approximately 3 to 30 megatons of TNT exploding above Siberia.
This would be the equivalent of more than 500 Hiroshima bombs detonating at once!
This impact was so large that it caused a massive dust cloud to rise into the sky, obscuring the Sun and causing temperatures to plummet across much of Northern Europe and Asia.
It’s estimated that over half of the plants and animals living in the area were killed by the blast.
However, there is no direct evidence of any human casualties.
It’s believed that the blast was so powerful that it knocked down trees and stripped away their bark before they fell back down again, with some falling straight back to the ground.
Chelyabinsk is a bit different because it impacted the ground.
It occurred during the early morning, but there were reports of people hearing sonic booms and seeing fireballs.
Luckily, no deaths were reported. But still, the damage was quite extensive.
At least 60 buildings in the town suffered some degree of structural damage.
Some windows shattered, roofs collapsed, and some electricity lines were cut.
Cars were damaged, and parked vehicles were smashed up. A bus station and a train depot suffered significant damage.
Trees and power poles were blown down.
And at least 6,000 injuries have been linked to the meteorite impact, either due to debris or even from the accidents that occurred on the roads around the impact site as a result.
Because it happened during the era of social media, this event gained widespread coverage when it was first spotted.
And so, like many other events, it became part of popular culture.
Even though it didn’t cause any direct casualties, it did leave a mark on the collective consciousness of humanity.
It’s hard to say how many smaller meteorites like these have taken place since then.
We do know that they tend to occur more frequently around the world and also that they cause much greater destruction than the larger ones.
So, we’ve seen what happens if you get hit by a meteorite… or at least, we think so.
The truth is, we haven’t got enough data to understand precisely what happens when something hits a planet.
There is very little research being done into the effects of space weather. So, we’re left to wonder about all sorts of things.
But the point remains: Earth is not an impenetrable fortress.
Yes, we may be protected by our atmosphere, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t be directly affected by meteors.
It just means that we need to be aware of the possibility. As long as we keep learning new things, we’ll keep making progress.
And maybe one day, we’ll figure out how to protect ourselves against these cosmic visitors.
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