People look at a crater in Carangas, Puno, Peru, Monday, Sept. 17, 2007, caused by a supposed meteorite that crashed in southern Peru over the weekend.
Credit: AP Photo/La Razon, Miguel Carrasco
Editor's Note: After this story was posted, an AP story reported that a Peruvian scientist said the hole was caused by a meteorite. [Story]
Scientists doubt that the supposed meteorite strike that sickened some 200 residents of Peru last weekend actually involved anything from space.
Based on reports of fumes emanating from the crater, some scientists actually suspect that the event could have been some kind of geyser-like explosion rather than a meteorite impact.
"Statistically, it's far more likely to have come from below than from above," said Don Yeomans, head of the Near Earth Object Program at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
The noxious fumes that have supposedly sickened curious locals who went to examine the crater would seem to indicate hydrothermal activity, such as a local gas explosion, because "meteorites don't give off odors," Yeomans told SPACE.com.
Several times in recent history, reports of meteorite impacts have turned out to be untrue after scientific examination. Doubt in the scientific community was as rampant today as the speculations out of Peru.
Details surrounding the incident are also increasing experts' skepticism.
"Many of the reported features of the crater ('boiling water,' sulphurous fumes, etc.) point to a geological mechanism of the crater formation," wrote Benny Peiser, a social anthropologist at John Moores University, in a daily newsletter that catalogues research and media coverage of space rock impacts and other threats to humanity. "I would not be surprised if, after careful analysis, the alleged meteorite impact reveals itself to be just another 'meteorwrong.'"
It's not impossible that the crater was left by a meteorite, Yeomans said, but if so, then the impact object most likely was small, based on the size of the crater. It would also probably have been a metal meteorite, because those are the only kind of small meteorites that don't burn up as they plummet through Earth's atmosphere, he added. Small stony meteorites rarely make it to the surface.
A couple features of the event reports suggest there was a space rock involved, said geophysicist Larry Grossman of the University of Chicago. The bright streak of light and loud bangs seen and heard by locals are consistent with a meteor streaking through Earth's atmosphere, he said. Most meteors do burn up, never becoming meteorites (which is what they're called if they reach the surface).
Because no one actually saw anything impact at the crater site, it's hard to say whether a space rock was involved because they are often deceptive as to where they will land. Many times, people swear a meteor landed nearby when in fact it was so far away that it dipped below the local horizon but never actually struck the ground.
"Sometimes these things land hundreds or thousands of miles away from where [people] think they will land," Grossman said.
Pictures of the crater show that the hole in the ground appears fresh, Grossman said, and the debris strewn around it is consistent with a meteorite impact but also could have been caused by digging.
And there are no previous reports of noxious fumes emanating from meteorite remnants or their craters, he said.
"If the noxious fumes came from the hole, it wasn't because the meteorite fell there," Grossman said, saying they would like have come from something already in the ground.
Grossman said that to determine whether the crater was made by a meteorite, the water in the hole must be pumped out and any large chunks of rock at the bottom should be examined to see if they are consistent with meteoritic composition.
Peruvian geologists are on their way to examine the crater, according to news reports.