In February 2013, an explosion with the force of 30 Hiroshima bombs lit up the sky over the Chelyabinsk region of Russia. The resulting air blast shattered windows across six cities, injuring an estimated 1500 people.
The 18m meteor that exploded 20km above Earth (pictured) was a sobering reminder that when it comes to space invaders, it’s not aliens we have to fear as much as the millions of wandering celestial bodies with which we share the solar system. And while catastrophic strikes from space might be the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters, they’re not mere science fiction. Just ask the dinosaurs.
On any clear night, away from the light pollution of our cities, you can witness these visitors as shooting stars or falling stars. They’re actually meteors, the term given to a meteoroid that has entered the atmosphere. If the meteor survives its journey to the surface of the Earth, it’s called a meteorite. And for more than 50 years Cranbourne was the site of Australia’s largest meteorite find after a 7.8 tonne ball of iron disintegrated in a fiery shower over the Dandenong Ranges and scattered its fragments in a 22km corridor from Beaconsfield to Pearcedale.
The Cranbourne meteor is thought to have fallen between 200 and 2000 years ago, and 13 meteorites have so far been recovered. The first, Cranbourne No.1, was a 3550kg monster that reportedly held some significance for the area’s Aboriginal people before it was retrieved from Devon Meadows in 1854 after a settler attempted to tether his horse to what he thought was a stump sticking out of the ground. The second, the 1525kg Cranbourne No.2, was recovered from Clyde the same year, and both were bought by London’s Natural History Museum. However, the sale caused such an uproar among Australian scientists that the museum returned No.2 to the colony, and it now resides at Museum Victoria.
Closer to home, Cranbourne No.12 resides at Casey Council’s Narre Warren customer service centre, although the meteorite display at Cranbourne was removed several years ago.
In 1911 the Cranbourne meteorite lost its heavyweight title to the Nullarbor’s Mundrabilla meteorite, which at 18 tonnes is still well short of Namibia’s 60 tonne Hoba. And of course nothing comes close to the planet-busting asteroid that smashed into Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula 65 million years ago, unleashing the energy of 10 billion Hiroshima bombs and taking 75 per cent of all species with it.
So the next time you see a meteor streaking across the sky, you might want to thank your lucky stars that that’s all it is.