Home Science & Technology Crime Scene Techniques Identify Asteroid Locations – Scientific Inquirer

Crime Scene Techniques Identify Asteroid Locations – Scientific Inquirer

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Tens of tons of extraterrestrial solid material collide with Earth every day. Most of this material is small enough to burn up in the atmosphere, but some fragments are large enough to cause serious problems. In 2013, a 20-meter-diameter object exploded over Chelyabinsk, seriously injuring more than 1,500 people. The last impact crater on Earth was formed in 2007, when an asteroid fell on a small village in Peru. An asteroid collision in 1947 in the Far East of Russia led to the formation of the youngest crater field on our planet: Sikhate-Alin. The most spectacular, relatively recent, extraterrestrial event occurred in 1908, when a body exploded over Siberia, leveling 2,000 km2 of forest. We can only prepare for these natural hazards if we understand how often such small impacts have occurred in the past and how they have affected the environment.

A new article in a prestigious magazine Geology shows that analyzing the bodies of organisms killed by an asteroid impact can teach us how much damage occurs at the site of such a cosmic collision. The research team is making trenches at the edges of four craters (Kaali Main and Kaali 2/8 in Estonia, Morasko in Poland and Whitecourt in Canada) located on two different continents that formed thousands of years apart. Dr. Juri Plado and Dr. Argo Jillecht from the Institute of Ecology and Earth Sciences at the University of Tartu observed: “Surprisingly, in all these places we found the same thing: pieces of charcoal ranging in size from millimeters to centimeters, mixed with material thrown out during its formation and is in the same location relative to the crater. Dr Anja Losiak, lead author of the study, from the Institute of Geological Sciences of the Polish Academy of Sciences and the University of Exeter, said: “At first we thought that these coals were formed by wildfires that happened shortly before the impact, and the coals just got tangled up in this extraterrestrial situation . But something was wrong with this hypothesis, there were too many coincidences; why are there major wildfires shortly before the formation of four different small impact craters separated by thousands of kilometers and years? Why can it only be found in a very specific location within the proximal ejection blanket? It didn’t make sense, so we decided to do further research and analyze the properties of the pieces of charcoal found mixed with the material ejected from the craters and compare them to charcoal from wildfires.”

Like the bodies studied in the criminal investigation, the properties of the organic remains turned into charcoal reflect the conditions in which they were killed. By their properties, we can clearly distinguish charcoals produced by a forest fire and those found in the proximal ejecta of impact craters. Professor Claire Belcher, from the University of Exeter, explained: “Impacted charcoals are really strange: they all look like they were formed at much lower temperatures than bushfire charcoals, they’re missing the parts that were formed by direct contact with the flames, and they are all very similar to each other, and in a fire it is usual to find badly burnt wood next to barely affected branches.’ “This is definitely not what we expected when we started the study: we believe that the charcoal formed when fragments of trees broken by the impact were mixed with local material ejected from the crater,” added Dr. Losiak.


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“This study improves our understanding of the environmental impact of small impact cratering, so that in the future, if we detect an asteroid a few meters or larger approaching us just a couple of weeks before impact, we can more precisely determine the size and type required evacuation zones,” said Professor Chris Hurd of the University of Alberta. “Our research can also help find new impact craters on Earth; we estimate that our record is missing more than ten craters formed in the last ten thousand years. We need to find them before their relatives visit us unexpectedly,” explained Professor Vitek Szczutinski from the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań.

IMAGE CREDIT: Argo Jõeleht


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