Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Sky Is Falling!

Most of us have seen the movie Armageddon, or at least know the plot; an asteroid is on a collision course with the Earth and could spell certain doom and disaster for the planet and its inhabitants. Popular television shows on The History Channel and other stations show a 'what if' scenario should an asteroid or large meteor strike happen in populated places, and makes for good entertainment.  The reality is, these kind of things have happened many times in the 4 billion year history of Earth.  Billions of years ago as the universe was being born, hundreds, or thousands, of meteors and small asteroids struck the planet on a regular basis as planetary bodies slammed into one another, raining the rocky debris into the atmosphere.  Most smaller meteors or meteorites are torn apart and disintegrate due to atmospheric friction, but occasionally, some penetrate through the volatile conditions and strike land. 
Perhaps the best and most poignant example of a stellar strike is what scientists believe caused the extinction of the great dinosaurs some 65 million years ago.  An asteroid or comet plunged into Earth near the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico and created a worldwide destructive event that killed off the vast majority of plant and animal live.  This may not have been  the first mass extinction event; scientists now hypothesize a much earlier event may have happened between the Triassic and Jurassic period that also wiped out much of the life on Earth.  Another incident in 1908 in the remote regions of the Ukraine involved what scientists believe was a comet that exploded in the atmosphere.  That explosion caused widespread destruction to the area, which was thankfully uninhabited.  Kentucky has been no stranger to these cosmic events, but with much less catastrophe.
There are three documented meteor strike zones in Kentucky significant enough to leave a lasting scar.  One such zone was mistaken for a volcano from 1887 until 1968.  The Jeptha Knob is located in Shelby County between Lexington and Louisville and is a 425 million year old impact site that caused the Earth to rise above the surrounding countryside, creating what's called an astrobleme.  Another strike occurred near Versailles some 440 million years ago.  The town of Middlesboro sits inside a 300 million year old meteor crater that struck the area adjacent to the Cumberland Gap.  The evening of November 15, 1902, residents in Bath County were shaken by the sonic boom of a meteor that struck five miles southeast of Salt Lick.
Around 7:45 p.m., residents in Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia observed a brilliant streak in the sky as a meteor burned across the upper atmosphere.  People in each of those states described the stellar light show as a "bright streak, like a roman candle; starting off dim and growing in intensity".  John Richards' published account in his book An Illustrated History of Bath County states that an eye witness in Owingsville said the streak started low above the horizon and grew almost as bright as daylight for about five seconds before disappearing.  A loud sonic boom was heard over Owingsville in a southeasterly direction toward Preston or Olympia, followed by a low rumbling sound. 
Meanwhile at White Sulphur Springs, near present day Clear Creek Lake, Buford Staton heard the noise and went out to investigate the sights and sounds above.   Observant scientists and curious people also traced the path of the falling object, but weren't sure of the exact point of impact.  The next morning, Mr. Staton found a piece of peculiar rock embedded in the ground along the roadway almost directly in front of his home.  Scientists from Kentucky and Ohio had studied the path and deducted from the azimuth calculations that the meteor should have struck somewhere near where it was found.  A day or so later, Buford Staton became a sort of local celebrity when word got out of his unique find.  Staton sold the piece to W.H. Daugherty for a sum of fifteen dollars.  Scientists arrived within the next few days to inspect the piece of extraterrestrial rock and documented it as being a polygon shaped, crusty, black piece  eight and a quarter by six and a half inches, weighing about thirteen pounds.  They also deducted that this must be just a fragment of the meteor that had broken off from a main body, as this small specimen couldn't have made such a spectacular entry from space.  The piece changed hands again when Mr. Daugherty sold it to Professor Harry Ward of Chicago for $300.  Eventually, the fragment found its way to the National Museum in Washington, D.C. and officially called the 'Bath Furnace Meteorite'.
Once at the museum, Professor Merrill studied the composition of the meteor fragment and determined that it was made of nickle, iron, olivine and pyroxene.  Other metallic deposits were scattered in the rock, mostly of rare elements not normally found on Earth.  Professor Merrill officially designated it as a chondrite, a type of meteor that hasn't been melted or altered from the original body mass.  Back in White Sulphur, local residents hunted for the remainder of the meteorite, and after the new year, Dick McCarty found two smaller pieces weighing a few ounces each.  These fragments found a home at the State A&M College in Lexington and officially called 'Bath Furnace 1 & 2'. 
In May, 1903, Hugh Pergram noticed some trees that had the bark skinned off and branches broken high atop them while out hunting about a mile and a half from Buford Staton's home.  Upon investigation, he struck lucky as what appeared to be the main body of the meteor was located partially buried under a grove of trees.  With some help the next day, Hugh Pergram excavated the large rock and took it to Thomas Pergram's home, where he traded it for two mules.  The meteor was triangular shaped with each side being roughly eighteen inches long, eleven inches deep and weighed an astonishing three hundred pounds approximately.  It was a glazed brownish-black with pitted holes throughout.  Word quickly got around and soon, college professors visited Pergram to view and attempt to purchase it.  One offer for $2400 was rejected in hopes a higher price would be offered, but a legal process soon began over the rights to the meteor.  The space debris was found on the land belonging to the heirs of Clell Ewing, who laid claim once it was discovered the meteor was so valuable.  Their argument was that since the meteor fell upon their property, they were the rightful owners.  Thomas Pergram refused to relinquish the piece to the Ewings, and a lawsuit followed.  Before the suit came to trial, both parties made an agreement; the Ewing heirs agreed to pay Thomas Pergram $300, with understanding if the meteor sold for more than $1200, Pergram was to receive one-fourth of the amount.

The Bath Furnace Meteors gained national attention through scientific publications of the day and the fragments were displayed in various science centers.  The largest piece and the smaller thirteen pound fragment was eventually purchased and placed in the Ward-Coonley Collection.  These pieces were also featured at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase World's Fair and viewed by hundreds, including visiting dignitaries from other nations.  The Smithsonian Institute voiced interest in the Ward-Coonley pieces of the Bath Furnace Meteor, but an agreement could not be reached.  The pieces are now housed at the Field Museum in Chicago.  Other meteors have struck Earth since the 1902 incident, but no more in Bath County.  Each year there are various meteor showers that give a sometimes spectacular show in the night sky, but nearly all the ones seen burn up before they pass the atmosphere.  A meteor streaked across the sky recently in Russia, causing a sonic boom that shook buildings and shattered windows for many miles.  With modern technology by NASA and other observatories constantly watching the skies, should a large asteroid or significant meteor pose a danger to Earth, there will be some advanced warning.  While it is unlikely, a small meteor can, and at some point will again, strike the planet creating a flurry of social activity, anxiety and awesome wonder.

The pictures are from the Field Museum and Ward-Coonley Collection, and are of the actual meteor fragments found in Bath County.

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