Mystery in History The Tunguska Meteorite

About the Tunguska fireball which fell in Russian Siberia, history and possible solutions to the mystery of the meteorite.


The Event: The Tunguska Fireball

When: 1908

Where: The Tungus Region of Central Siberia

The Mystery: During the first moments of dawn on June 30, 1908, a falling star flashed into sight over western China. It came to earth with a gigantic explosion in a desolate region of peat bogs and pine forests near the Podkamennaya (Stony) Tunguska River in central Siberia.

Awed witnesses of what was later to be called the Tunguska Fireball reported a blinding light and a series of deafening thunderclaps audible at a distance of 500 mi.

That night strangely luminous clouds veiled northern Europe. A bright, diffused white and yellow illumination lit Berlin, Copenhagen, London, and Konigsberg with an intensity sufficient to permit photography. Ships could be seen for miles out at sea. Scientists attributed the unusual "northern lights" to solar flares, for news of the great Siberian explosion was long delayed.

Not until 1927, after war and revolution had swept Russia, did a scientific expedition led by Russian meteorite specialist Leonid A. Kulik reach the blast site. What Kulik found was enough to stagger the imagination of a man who had expected a meteorite fall, even a giant meteorite fall.

To a radius of 12 mi. from the epicenter of the explosion, the pine forest was leveled and blackened. Uprooted trees lay parallel to one another, their tops pointed away from the blast. At a 5-mi. radius the wrecked forest showed evidence of an instantaneous burn from above. At the center of the devastated area. Kulik found a mysterious island of upright trees, blackened and stripped of bark and branches, resembling a forest of telegraph poles. There was not a sign of the giant meteorite crater Kulik had expected to discover.

Possible Solutions: The absence of a crater has proven the most serious obstacle to theories based on a meteorite fall. The explanation most favored today is that the explosion was caused by a comet, a collection of nickel-iron fragments bound together by ice (a "dirty snowball"), which evaporated explosively near the ground. Some scientists maintain, however, that a comet large enough to have caused the explosion should have been observed by astronomers long before it struck the earth.

Several exotic theories have been advanced to account for the Tunguska Fireball, and these have kept pace with new developments in science.

The destruction wrought by the world's first atomic weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki prompted a Russian engineer turned author, Aleksander Kazantsev, to suggest that the Siberian explosion had actually been the nuclear pyre of an alien spaceship attempting to land.

Other possible explanations include collision with an antimatter meteorite or a "black hole."

When particles of antimatter and ordinary matter meet, they annihilate one another in a reaction 1,000 times more efficient than that of a hydrogen bomb.

So far, black holes exist only in theory. They are thought to consist of the matter of dead stars so compressed that not even a ray of light can escape their gravitational pull. According to this theory, a fast-moving black hole struck the earth and produced an effect akin to a nuclear explosion. It then passed through like a bullet, with its speed virtually undiminished.

To this day the scientific community remains divided on the issue of the Tunguska Fireball. On only one point has a consensus been reached: It is remarkable that the explosion occurred in one of the few places on earth able to absorb the blast without destruction of human life or property. It is almost as if someone planned it that way.

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