Israeli Meteorite Misadventures


If you were idly wandering around the internet this weekend, you may have stumbled across an interesting little story about a burning object on an Israeli beach. You also may have noticed that a slew of media outlets indicated that this unidentified smoldering object was a meteorite (or a ‘meteorite’ — because using quotations indicate ‘skepticism’).

When I was at first alerted to this story, I watched the videophone footage of the ‘meteorite’ after it had “fallen from the sky” (according to Israeli police) and punched a hole through a surfboard, I instantly realized it wasn’t a meteorite or anything else cosmic in origin for that matter.

Why? For starters, it was hot. So hot that it was burning. Like crazy. Actually, it was burning so much, I described it as an incendiary device (which, in fact, wasn’t that far from the truth) — the guys on the beach even tried to douse the flames with water, but it continued to burn regardless. There was fire and one heck of a lot of smoke originating from this little pebble that it had started to burn through the shells on the beach.

Take a look at the video that was captured on the beach near Tel Aviv:

This is probably one of the biggest misconceptions about small meteorites* that are found on the ground soon after they’ve entered the Earth’s atmosphere. Meteorites are not hot when they land on terra firma, they are actually cold.

Before entering the Earth’s atmosphere, meteoroids (i.e. space rock that is destined to become a meteor or meteorite) are by their nature very cold. This is obvious as the vacuum of space is as cold as it gets. Therefore, they are deep frozen.

When these meteoroids make contact with the dense atmosphere of our planet, they are heated up by atmospheric ram pressure (created by the rapid compression of air in front of the object), burning the outer layers of the meteor enough to create a tail of ionized gas, producing a bright streak across the sky. This very brief streak is also known as a “shooting star.” It’s unlikely that this brief moment of heating warms the cold heart of the space rock.

After this, the meteorite will have slowed down substantially and any heating effect caused by this initial burn will be lost. As the meteorite falls through the high atmosphere (also a cold place), the rock will be very cold as it falls, like a stone, at terminal velocity.

Therefore, when a small meteorite is found shortly after re-entry, it is cold. It has even been reported that meteorites are so cold that frost has formed on their surface.

As it turns out, after inspection of the Israeli object, it was found to be “man made.”

“It is definitely not a meteor and not a different natural substance –- somebody created it, and it did not appear from outer space,” said Ittai Gavrieli, Director of the Geological Survey of Israel.

“The object had high concentrations of phosphorus, which is naturally ignited when it comes in contact with air and with inflammatory material.”

Whether this event was a hoax (like the Latvian crater), or the incendiary substance was thrown onto the beach by some other means, it remains to be seen, but it most definitely was not a meteorite.

*Larger meteorites may hit the ground at hyper-velocity speeds producing an impact crater. That is a whole different ballgame as the impact is likely to be very energetic in nature. However, these kinds of impacts are rare, fortunately. Most meteorites are small enough to be slowed (so they fall to earth at terminal velocity), but not totally destroyed, by atmospheric re-entry.

A special thanks to Avi Joseph for alerting me to this story!

Image: The Israeli ‘meteorite’ after it had cooled. According to experts, it was man made. Credit: Ilan Lilush, Tel Aviv Police.

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