Shooting star lands on farm

2017-06-16 13:45
Mandy Tyrer with her son, Jarryd Nurden, on the farm where the shooting star landed on Thursday.

Mandy Tyrer with her son, Jarryd Nurden, on the farm where the shooting star landed on Thursday. (Supplied)

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The saying “wish upon a star” took on new meaning for a Richmond resident on Thursday when a colourful meteorite or shooting star crash-landed in a sugar cane plantation on her farm.

Mandy Tyrer was “most probably the only person in the world” to witness the unusual spectacle, an expert later told The Witness.

Tyrer, who lives on Ingeslby Farm in Richmond, said her morning drive on the farm on Thursday had turned into an “absolutely fascinating” experience when she saw the shooting star, with a tail resembling exploding fireworks, hit the ground.

Astronomer Dr Tana Joseph confirmed that Tyrer’s experience was the only reported incident of a meteorite hitting the ground on Thursday, which means she may have been the only person in the world to witness the event. “It is even more special that this all happened in her back yard,” said Joseph.

Dr Joseph is an astronomer at the South African Astronomical Observatory based in Cape Town.

Speaking to The Witness on Thursday, Tyrer said it was around 6 am “when the sky just started turning into a light blue shade” when she saw a “bright white” shooting star with a metre-long tail whip across the sky.

“The metre-long tail started changing colours into shades of light blue, orange and then bright red.

“Then the end of the tail began exploding in what looked like little explosions of fireworks,” she said.

Tyrer said within seconds the shooting star crash-landed in the far distance into their sugar cane plantations.

“I just could not believe my eyes. It was absolutely amazing and fascinating,” said an excited Tyrer.

She said she could not travel into the cane field to see the damage the meteorite left in its wake because of the density of the sugar cane but said there were no buildings near the explosion. Neither did the explosion spark a fire.

Speaking to The Witness later on Thursday about the phenomenon, Joseph said what Tyrer had witnessed was “an amazing sight” of a meteorite surviving through the Earth’s atmosphere.

She explained that a meteorite is a rock from space that moves through the Earth’s atmosphere but usually disintegrates into what we call a shooting star. “What [Tyrer] witnessed is a meteorite that was big enough to survive the burning up process that usually occurs in the planet’s atmosphere through friction,” Joseph said.

She said although there are craters around the world caused by meteorites crashing into Earth, this was the first time she has heard of such a sighting in Richmond.

She said the “special sight” should be celebrated by Tyrer, who is most likely to be the only person in the world to have witnessed on Thursday morning’s event.

Still ecstatic over her sighting, Tyrer also relayed the story of how her husband, Ian, and a few matric pupils witnessed another shooting star two weeks ago in Richmond but that time it did not hit the ground.

What are meteorites?

Most meteors become visible at around 96,5 km up (in space). Some large meteors splatter, causing a brighter flash called a fireball, which can often be seen during the day and heard up to 48 km away. On average, meteors can speed through the atmosphere at about 48 280 km per second and reach temperatures of about 1 648 degrees Celsius.

Most meteors are very small, some as tiny as a grain of sand, so they disintegrate in the air. Larger ones that reach the Earth’s surface are called meteorites and are rare.

When meteorites do hit the ground, their speed is roughly half what it was upon entry, and they blast out craters 12 to 20 times their size. Large meteors can explode above the surface, causing widespread damage from the blast and ensuing fire. This happened in 1908 over Siberia, in what’s called the Tunguska event.

A similar event occurred over Chelyabinsk, Russia, when a 17-metre rock exploded about 24 km above the Earth’s surface on February 15, 2013, damaging buildings and injuring more than 1 000 people. Although the Russian event brought into focus the possible danger Earth could suffer from space rocks, most meteors don’t cause nearly as much damage. Still, Nasa and other entities keep careful track of all asteroids visible from Earth, and are actively engaged in discovering as many asteroids as possible — especially the ones that are larger and would pose more of a (theoretical) threat to Earth.

In ancient times, objects in the night sky conjured superstition and were associated with gods and religion. But misunderstandings about meteors lasted longer than they did about most other celestial objects.

Meteorites (the pieces that make it to Earth) were long ago thought to be cast down as gifts from angels. Others thought the gods were displaying their anger.

As late as the 17th century, many believed they fell from thunderstorms (they were nicknamed “thunderstones”). Many scientists were skeptical that stones could fall from the clouds or the heavens, and often they simply didn’t believe the accounts of people who claimed to have seen such things.

• The above excerpt was taken from an article on space.com headlined “Meteor Showers and Shooting Stars: Formation, Facts and Discovery”.

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  meteorite shooting star

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