Friday, December 26, 2008

Was it a bird? A plane? No, it was a Christmas meteorite!

In the early morning of Christmas Eve, "people in the streets, on the roads and in the fields saw a magnificent globe of fire appear, dazzling with extraordinary brilliance, shining with the colors of the rainbow, overpowering the light of the moon and descending majestically from the sky."

This is the account of Rafael Martínez Fortún, a farmer from the town of Molina de Segura, Murcia, who witnessed the impact of the largest meteorite ever to fall in Spain. The object fell on his property on December 24, 1858. Fortún's story, and that of other witnesses, appears in the most recent issue of Astronomy & Geophysics, in honor of the 150th anniversary of the event.

One witnesses said that at 2:45am the sky was suddenly lit by “a huge star of a brightness that eclipsed the moon, and it moved directly overhead towards the north.”Someone else described, “a ball of such brilliant fire and beautiful colors, that it looked as if one of the stars was falling to the Earth from the sky." Another passage mentioned that, "it passed so low over this city, so close to the cathedral tower" that those who saw it thought it was going to hit the steeple. Although it missed the church and landed several kilometers away, its impact caused such a tremor that it woke up the town's residents.

Interestingly, there seem to be no references to people thinking at the time that the event had anything to do with Christmas or might be a religious sign of some sort. Indeed, the quotes that I've read seem all very matter of fact and rational. Of course, this may be because Fortún collected the testimony and prepared the original report to accompany the meteorite as a gift to, "one of the scientific museums of the Kingdom so that it can be made available to men of science, who can study it with all due attention.” So, who knows what unscientific sounding reactions he may have omitted.

The bulk of the meteorite (112.5 kilograms of the original 144) is on display in Madrid's National Museum of Natural Sciences (MNCN), where it has been exhibited since 1863, when Fortún made a donation of it and his report. Other parts of the object were given to such institutions as Britain's Natural History Museum, the Field Museum in Chicago, and (finally, a religious connection of some sort) the Vatican’s meteorite collection.

Chao amig@s,


P.S. Read the articles I based this post on at the SINC (Servicio de Información y Noticias Científicas / Scientific Information and News), and city of Molina de Segura's websites. The Molina de Segura website has a photo of the meteorite, as well as an audio version of the article.

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