During a couple of days here at the Kitsap Sun there were two strings of prank phone calls sent our way. Someone pranked us from the site PrankDial.com. The calls are prerecorded, but they’re convincing enough that folks who answered the phone answered like they were talking to real people. I took one of the calls the first day and it was a woman asking for toilet paper who then begged me to stay on the line. I hung up, because I knew about the earlier prank calls, but I might have stayed on the line had I been unaware.
Steve Harris called in the middle of the second run of calls when we still didn’t know these things were prerecorded, so when he told me he thought he might have been hit by a meteorite, my first thought was “Oh boy, here we go.”
The more Harris talked, though, the more I realized that he was being honest. I still thought it unlikely, but the more digging I did the more it seemed at least possible. And the mere possibility that someone in Bremerton might have been hit by a meteorite sent my news nerves into spasms.Harris said he was walking on Farragut Street on his way to the shipyard when he felt something hit the bill of his University of North Carolina baseball cap. The item then hit his shoulder and fell to the ground. It didn’t hurt and his first thought was that a bird had done its business on him. But then he saw what looked like a piece of pea gravel by his foot and picked it up.
There was nothing in the sky that would explain why a rock had hit Harris, and when he talked to some friends at work he got the inkling to check out whether there was any chance it could have fallen from space.
Harris found some sites that suggested ways to test the seemingly implausible notion and after performing a couple of them he found out he couldn’t rule it out. He called us, explained what had happened, talked about the tests he had done, and later he brought it over so we could take a photo. I was intrigued, still holding room for skepticism, but intrigued. I knew enough to know what I don’t know. I’m not enough of a scientist to dismiss it, especially since everything I was looking up failed to rule out Harris’ question.
For one thing, it looked enough like it could be one. Secondly, he dragged it on tile and there was no mark, a sign that the item could be a meteorite. And the magnetism of the rock was enough to convince me it was worth consulting an expert.
My first call went to Astronomy Professor Don Brownlee at the University of Washington.
Brownlee said there are lots of cases of meteorites hitting mailboxes, cars or landing in open spaces. Hitting people? “It’s an extremely rare event,” he said. In fact, a National Geographic piece on an Alabama woman who was hit by meteorite in 1954 suggests she is the only documented case ever. “You have a better chance of getting hit by a tornado and a bolt of lightning and a hurricane all at the same time,” Florida State College astronomer Michael Reynolds told the magazine.
While that fires up the skepticism meter, it also ignites whatever goes on inside a reporter that encourages a chase because it might be a rarity. It would be a big deal if it turned out the rock really was a recent meteorite and that it hit a local.
Brownlee said the earth is hit by 20-30 tons of meteorites every year, that there is a steady rain of material coming to the ground. I did have a question about how fast something would be traveling if it fell from space, and Brownlee said terminal velocity meant that something as small as what hit Harris would be no faster from space than it would be from atop the Space Needle.
I sent Brownlee the photo you see here, and he responded, “It’s not clear from the picture if is a meteorite or not. The fusion crust on meteorites is usually a bit rougher than this but it still might be a meteorite.”
I had tried to reach astronomy professor David Fong at Olympic College. He responded by email saying we couldn’t get a test done locally, but if we could get it to UW’s geology department or to the University of North Texas they could give an answer. I got in touch with UW Geology Professor Tony Irving. He said it was highly unlikely the rock would actually be a meteorite, but got fellow Geology Professor Scott Kuehner to agree to give it a look with him on Friday.
Friday morning I got on the Bainbridge ferry and drifted into the fog toward Seattle. I made my way to the fourth floor of UW’s Johnson Hall, where Irving and Kuehner were waiting for me. They put the rock under a microscope and made a quick conclusion that we did not have a meteorite that fell from the sky and hit Harris. “Everything about it suggests it’s a pebble from a stream,” Irving said.
Irving and Kuehner brought up the same thing Brownlee did, the lack of a fusion crust. On its way into the Earth’s atmosphere meteorite will develop a crust that will wear off over time. This rock didn’t have one. Secondly, there were iron oxidation signs suggesting the rock had been here a while.
Irving said when we watch meteor showers what we see is essentially space dust. Amazing that something that tiny causes that magnificent a show. And Brownlee said when we sit on a park bench the chances are good that we’re parking on a pretty good collection of space dust.
Something as large as what hit Harris would create a much bigger show. “If this came down as a meteorite it would create daylight at night,” Irving said.
It would takes lots more testing to find out what it is, but it only took a few seconds to determine what it was not. Irving said there might be some volcanic qualities to the rock, but that would take more testing. Whether that happens will be up to Harris.
Our local resident who was hit from above was a little disappointed, and so was I. There are times we go into stories where we want there to be a certain outcomes. Our initial skepticism can give way to our hopes. I was hoping this was a meteorite. In the end it’s not our job to report what we hope is true.
Harris’ conclusion now is that the rock that hit him was most likely something picked up by a seagull and discarded as it flew over him. That’s one of the things both Brownlee and Irving said were likely possibilities. So in the end, it might have been the birds doing business after all, just not the kind of business Harris initially suspected.