News of a large meteor crashing in Russia last week was certainly unusual. Never before have we heard of so many people being affected, with some 1,200 people hurt - mostly by window glass exploding as the meteor's sonic boom hit.
This was a very rare moment when we come into realization we are part of a greater cosmos, that the universe isn't just "out there" and puts on a nice show of stars when the clouds happen to part. Yes, we really are part of "out there" and 1,200 Russians now know that all too well.
It would be foolish to take much time fretting when the next meteor may hit. Actually, a few small strikes may occur daily, but with three-quarters of the Earth covered by water, we hardly ever know about them.
Meteor watching can be a very pleasant experience. They do look like "stars" shooting across the sky, but of course they aren't really stars. We take for granted the meteors pose no danger, and almost all of them vaporize far up in the atmosphere. In fact the vast majority of incoming specks of dust and pebbles are so small, that they are far too faint to be noticed when they vaporize.
I've mentioned this story in past columns, but at least one meteorite landed in Wayne County, Pa., (where this column originates), many years ago, and was found soon after it arrived.
I had a cousin, long since deceased, by the name of James Bigelow. He lived with his elderly parents, Charles and Carrie, in an old farm house near Calkins, out in dairy country outside Honesdale. James told me one day that his father witnessed a fireball cross the sky on his family farm, which at that time was in Niagara, northern Wayne County. The year was 1914. James said that his father saw where it crashed in a field, and erected a fence around the rock, so people could come and see but not touch.
Years later, a relative, Eunice Bigelow, had the meteorite on display in her dining room in Honesdale. I recall seeing it there in 1979.
On Jan. 11, 1988, she donated the space rock to the Wayne County Commissioners. About the size of a grapefruit, the meteorite sits today on display in the Courthouse lobby in Honesdale.
Full moon arrives Feb. 25. You won't see the craters of the moon well during the full phase, with your telescope. At other times, even binoculars (held steadily) will show numerous craters partly filled in shadow, along the edge of light and darkness on the moon. Just think - each of those craters is the result of an impact with an asteroid or smaller meteoroid (as meteors are called before they get pulled in by Earth's gravity).
We now know craters fill the solar system, on satellites of other planets, Mercury and Mars. Planets with thick atmospheres have less visible craters. Earth has its share, but most are eroded by weather and the atmosphere shields the bulk of incoming rock by vaporizing them before landfall.
Nevertheless, the experience of a small asteroid exploding over Russia and injuring so many people reminds us we have a universe to be reckoned with. We can be thankful for the comforts of the good Earth, our planet which protects its inhabitants so very well.
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Keep looking up!