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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Small Meteorite Punches Through Roof of House in Thailand

By Phil Plait

In the early morning of Tuesday, a small rock that is very likely a meteorite fell onto a house in Phitsanulok's Muang district in Thailand, punching a hole in the roof and doing some minor damage inside.

Apparently many people in the area, including the owner of the home, heard a loud explosion some time before, which may have been the shock wave from the meteorite entering the atmosphere.

I don’t speak or read Thai, but there’s a video from the Matichon TV YouTube channel with some pretty interesting footage.

I’ll note that in September 2015 a somewhat larger meteor burned up in the same area and was caught on video, but that’s certainly a coincidence.

The rock from this fall will have to be tested to make sure it’s a meteorite, but it certainly looks like one to my eye; the gray interior is common in stony meteorites, and the outer dark shell may be a “fusion crust,” caused by the few seconds of intense heat as the meteoroid (what the solid piece of rock or metal is called before it hits the ground) passes through the air at high speed.

One part of the story gives me pause, though: The homeowner says the rock was hot to the touch when she picked it up. In general, a meteoroid is only hot for a few seconds as it rams through the air, decelerating from hypersonic speeds down to below the speed of sound. As it slams through the upper atmosphere about 80–100 kilometers above the Earth’s surface, the intense pressure of its passage compresses the air violently, and that heats the air up, which in turn heats up the meteoroid. It gets hot enough to glow (the air glows too) and we call that part the actual meteor.

But it slows in just seconds, falling the rest of the way at a few hundred kilometers per hour, taking a few minutes to fall the rest of the way to Earth. Air is very cold that high up, so many meteorites should be very cold to the touch if they’re found immediately after hitting the ground. Perhaps the homeowner made a mistake, thinking the intense cold was heat (if you’ve ever touched something extremely cold, the sensations are very similar).

I’ll be very curious to hear about any tests run on the fragments. The homeowner says she’ll keep it, and that it will bring her good luck. I don’t know about that, but meteorites from known falls that hit objects on the ground can be extremely valuable to collectors. They’re called “hammers,” and this one has a mass of about 300 grams, so it’s easily worth thousands of dollars.

She’s lucky that no one was injured; at a hundred or more kph that would’ve hurt (it weighs twice as much as a baseball and was moving at least as rapidly as a fastball). Still, if I could choose to have one hit my house, I’d probably take that chance! What a story!

The odds are extremely low, of course. The Earth is three-fourths water, and even the land area is mostly uninhabited. Meteorite falls over populated areas are rare, and having them hit objects even rarer. Very few injuries have been reported, and fewer verified (though a woman named Ann Hodges was hit by a meteorite in the 1950s in Sylacauga, Alabama, and that’s well worth your time to read about). It’s not something I worry about, to be honest.

Perhaps more meteorites from this fall will be found, too. That would be nice. A meteorite is in some ways a gift from the Universe to us, a piece of it that we can hold in our hands and examine in our labs, instead of just seeing from some huge distance away. Sometimes the Universe is pretty cool that way.

Want to learn more about meteors? Here's my episode of Crash Course Astronomy about them!

Tip o’ the Whipple Shield to Ron Baalke.

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