Scientists Doubt Meteorite Sickened Peruvians

Scientists Doubt Meteorite Sickened Peruvians
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. (Image 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 doubtthat the supposed meteorite strike that sickened some 200 residents of Peru last weekend actually involved anything from space.

Based on reportsof fumes emanating from the crater, some scientists actually suspect thatthe event could have been some kind of geyser-like explosion rather than a meteoriteimpact.

"Statistically,it's far more likely to have come from below than from above," said DonYeomans, head of the Near Earth Object Program at NASA's Jet PropulsionLaboratory in Pasadena, California.

The noxiousfumes that have supposedly sickened curious locals who went to examine the craterwould seem to indicate hydrothermal activity, such as a local gas explosion,because "meteorites don't give off odors," Yeomans told


Severaltimes in recent history, reports of meteorite impacts have turned out to beuntrue after scientific examination. Doubt in the scientific community was asrampant today as the speculations out of Peru.

Details surroundingthe incident are also increasing experts' skepticism.

"Manyof the reported features of the crater ('boiling water,' sulphurousfumes, etc.) point to a geological mechanism of the crater formation," wroteBenny Peiser, a social anthropologist at John Moores University, in a dailynewsletter that catalogues research and media coverage of space rock impactsand other threats to humanity. "I would not be surprised if, after carefulanalysis, the alleged meteorite impact reveals itself to be just another'meteorwrong.'"

It's notimpossible that the crater was left by a meteorite, Yeomans said, but if so, then the impact object mostlikely was small, based on the size of the crater. It would also probablyhave been a metalmeteorite, because those are the only kind of small meteorites that don'tburn up as they plummet through Earth's atmosphere, he added. Small stonymeteorites rarely make it to the surface.

A couplefeatures of the event reports suggest there was a space rock involved, said geophysicistLarry Grossman of the University of Chicago. The bright streak of light andloud bangs seen and heard by locals are consistent with a meteor streakingthrough Earth's atmosphere, he said. Most meteors do burn up, never becomingmeteorites (which is what they're called if they reach the surface).

Because noone actually saw anything impact at the crater site, it's hard to say whether aspace rock was involved because they are often deceptive as to where they willland. Many times, people swear a meteor landed nearby when in fact it was sofar away that it dipped below the local horizon but never actually struck theground.

"Sometimesthese things land hundreds or thousands of miles away from where [people] thinkthey will land," Grossman said.


Pictures ofthe crater show that the hole in the ground appears fresh, Grossman said, andthe debris strewn around it is consistent with a meteoriteimpact but also could have been caused by digging.

And thereare no previous reports of noxious fumes emanating from meteorite remnants ortheir craters, he said.

"Ifthe noxious fumes came from the hole, it wasn't because the meteorite fellthere," Grossman said, saying they would like have come from somethingalready in the ground.

Grossmansaid that to determine whether the crater was made by a meteorite, the water inthe hole must be pumped out and any large chunks of rock at the bottom shouldbe examined to see if they are consistent with meteoritic composition.

Peruviangeologists are on their way to examine the crater, according to news reports.

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Andrea Thompson

Andrea Thompson is an associate editor at Scientific American, where she covers sustainability, energy and the environment. Prior to that, she was a senior writer covering climate science at Climate Central and a reporter and editor at Live Science, where she primarily covered Earth science and the environment. She holds a graduate degree in science health and environmental reporting from New York University, as well as a bachelor of science and and masters of science in atmospheric chemistry from the Georgia Institute of Technology.