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Strange Explosion in Vellore Thought the Work of a Fallen Meteorite

One person was killed and three others were injured when a mysterious heavy object fell close to the Bharatidasan Engineering College complex in Natarampalli, Vellore, causing an explosion and creating a crater.

Eyewitnesses claimed that the object fell from the sky. A driver working in the college lost his life after the object fell near him as he was walking past the building. Three gardeners suffered injuries and were admitted to a local hospital. According to the college principal, students who were in their classes at the time of the incident were safe. The explosion damaged many glass planes of the college buildings, official sources said. It also created a small crater near the building complex.

Two competing theories had emerged about the explosion’s cause but one was quickly ruled out. It was first thought that no object fell from the sky but gelatin sticks buried among rocks underground, and forgotten, during the college’s construction could’ve been disturbed by gardeners cleaning up on the surface. However, preliminary investigations found no explosive substances at the site.

The competing explanation, confirmed by officials speaking to The New Indian Express on February 6 to be more likely, is that a meteorite fell from the sky. This is corroborated by the fact that – as The Hindu reported – “pieces of a rare kind of stone” being found and sent for analysis (to the Physical Research Laboratory, Ahmedabad). After that, as with all meteorites retrieved in India, the rock is destined for the Geological Survey of India Museum in Kolkata. Chief Minister Jayalalithaa has since announced a solatium of Rs.1 lakh to the family of the killed driver.

The odds of being killed by a meteorite impact are 1 in 700,000, according to a calculation by astronomer Alan Harris performed in 2008. However, the size of the impact is rapidly enlarged the bigger the meteorite gets. For example, the meteorite that exploded over the southern Ural region in Russia in February 2013 and crashed near the town of Chelyabinsk was about 20 metres wide. The crash sent shockwaves damaging over 7,000 buildings and injuring over 1,500 people. It’s assumed that a rock that’s more than 10 km at impact could wipe out most life on Earth.

Meteors are simply rocks in space, smaller than asteroids but larger than meteoroids. They make up one ‘source’ of meteorites when they crash on planetary bodies whenever they pass too close to them. So the frequency of crashes increases when seasonal meteor showers occur (like the Geminids and Leonids). And more often than not, the rocks burn up in Earth’s atmosphere. A recent and famous exception to this (over India) was in February 2015, when a larger rock exploded in the skies over Kerala, sending smaller fragments peppering down over Ernakulam district.

Dipankar Banerjee, an associate professor at the Indian Institute for Astrophysics, Bengaluru, has stated that the Vellore event is unlikely to be due to a meteorite because no meteor showers have been predicted for this time of year. At the same time, a weekly calendar put out by the American Meteors Society states that a seasonal shower of the Pi Hydrids is expected to have maximum activity on February 7, apart from two other showers underway until February 21.

With inputs from PTI.

Note: This article was updated on February 8, 2016, to state that the Vellore meteorite has been sent to the Physical Research Laboratory, Ahmedabad, for analysis.

Featured image cred: soham_pablo/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.