WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A meteorite that struck Peru in September, digging out a deep hole and startling nearby residents, traveled faster and hit harder than would have been expected, researchers reported on Tuesday.
The object, which left a 49-foot-wide (15 meter) crater, was made of rock and, in theory, should have disintegrated in the atmosphere long before reaching the Earth’s surface, said Peter Schultz, a professor of geological sciences at Brown University in Rhode Island.
And it may have. But the pieces stayed together and were speeding at 15,000 mph (24,000 kph) when they hit, Schultz told the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in League City, Texas.
Usually only meteorites made of metal make it to the surface intact enough to scoop out a crater.
“They come into the atmosphere, they slow down, and they plop,” Schultz said in a telephone interview.
“It would make a hole in the ground, like a pit, but not a crater. But this meteorite kept on going at a speed about 40 to 50 times faster than it should have been going.”
It landed in an arroyo, or dry stream, and the pit quickly filled with water from underneath the surface.
Schultz said his team’s observations suggest that scientists may need to change theories about the different ways objects can hit planets. “We have to go back to the drawing board and think again,” he said.
Dozens of people who visited the crater, near Lake Titicaca and the border with Bolivia, reported vomiting and headaches afterward. Some questioned whether the noise and hole were actually caused by a meteorite.
“That is one of the reasons we went down. We wanted to distinguish fact from fiction,” Schultz said. “These reports of all these people being sick were grossly exaggerated. They didn’t get sick. They were surprised.”
A team from Johnson Space Center in Houston analyzed two chunks of dark gray rock from the meteorite and told the meeting they look nothing like meteorites from known sources such as Mars.
Schultz, whose team inspected the crater 800 miles (1,300 km) south of Lima, said its unusually loud and messy impact happened because it was spinning and going so quickly.
“This just isn’t what we expected,” Schultz said. “It was to the point that many thought this was fake. It was completely inconsistent with our understanding how stony meteorites act.”
At such high velocity, fragments may not escape past the “shock-wave” barrier accompanying the meteorite, he said.
“It became very streamlined and so it penetrated the Earth’s atmosphere more efficiently,” Schultz said. He compared it to a flock of geese drafting behind one another in V-shaped flight.
He said this could challenge conventional wisdom that all small, stony meteorites disintegrate before striking Earth.
“You just wonder how many other lakes and ponds were created by a stony meteorite, but we just don’t know about them because when these things hit the surface they just completely pulverize and then they weather,” said Schultz.
The findings may also help explain what caused various craters on Mars, he said.
Editing by Will Dunham and Eric Beech