Chennai: This may be the first official confirmation of an object from space killing a living thing on earth this side of the 20th century.
If the object is confirmed to be a meteorite -- a fragment of a comet or asteroid that has fallen to Earth -- the death would be the first fatality from a meteorite on record, it is believed.
The only confirmed human meteorite victim in history so far has been Ann Hodges, who was hit in her Alabama home in 1954 and survived.
On Sunday, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa issued a statement saying the death of a man on the premises of a private engineering college in Vellore district the day before had been caused by a meteorite.
“A mishap occurred yesterday when a meteorite fell in the campus of a private engineering college in Vellore district's K Pantharappalli village…,” she said in a release here, adding that she had ordered the district administration and hospital officials to offer the best treatment to the three injured.
Window panes of Bharatidasan Engineering College buses and several glass planes of its building had been damaged when the object said to be a meteorite by the state government fell, causing a loud explosion and leaving a small crater near the college complex.
The impact of the object left a five-foot-deep crater in the ground, according to the Times of India, and shattered window panes in a nearby building, killing the driver who was walking past.
Eyewitnesses claimed to have seen a flying object falling down and striking the campus at around Saturday noon.
The deceased, a driver with the college named Kamaraj, was at the time walking past the building. Two gardeners and a student at the college were also injured in the incident, and are receiving treatment at a hospital in Vellore, the chief added.
Even as scientists are studying whether the object that fell from the sky into an engineering college compound in Vellore killing a person is a meteorite, a former senior official of an Indian space agency said tracking meteorites is very difficult because of their small size.
A meteorite is a portion of an asteroid or a comet that survives the Earth's atmospheric heat and impacts the earth's surface.
The portion or debris of an asteroid or comet before it hits the Earth's surface is called a meteoroid.
"Once a meteoroid escapes the Earth's atmosphere then it falls towards the Earth at a speed of 2-4 km per second. Normally meteoroids turn into ashes when they enter the Earth's atmosphere due to friction," M.Y.S. Prasad, former director of Satish Dhawan Space Centre of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), told IANS.
According to the US's National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA) website: "Asteroids are typically composed of rock-forming minerals, most commonly olivine and pyroxene. However, they often contain metal (iron and nickel), sulfides (chemical mixtures of metals and sulfur), clays, and organic compounds. The structure and composition of asteroids vary from object to object."
Prasad said most asteroids in our solar system are in the region between Mars and Jupiter known as asteroid belt.
Kamaraj, employed as a driver with Bharathidasan Engineering College in Natrampalli in Vellore district, around 170 km from here, was killed and three others were injured in an explosion after a burning object fell from the sky on February 6.
Police said Kamaraj and others were hit by splinters due to the impact of the unknown object which also created a three-foot wide crater on the ground.
But if the meteoroid is large and travels down slowly, then some portion of that can survive the atmospheric heat.
"No country in the world now has the capability to track meteoroid the escapes the atmosphere," he added.
Police initially probed a terror angle, but as a senior officer told The Indian Express, they couldn't find any trace of an explosive or grenade causing the blast. Finally, the officer said, they concluded it was the result of a meteorite fall with the help of a senior scientist who was camping in Vellore due to a similar incident two weeks ago.
“Following a similar incident near Vellore on January 26, on a paddy field in Alangayam village, a scientist from National Physical Laboratory had been camping near Vellore. When our bomb and explosives experts ruled out the presence of usual chemicals and explosive contents, it was the scientist who visited the campus and confirmed it was an incident caused by a meteorite,” the officer said.
While there have been claims earlier of meteorites proving fatal, including in the 20th century, there is no official confirmation of the same except for a cow that came under one in Venezuela in 1972, was struck dead, and quickly eaten. In 2007, the killer meteorite, which came to be used as a doorstop, was put up for auction. At the time, The Telegraph daily of the UK said the Valera meteorite fragment “holds the dubious distinction of being the only extra-terrestrial rock to have caused a death”.
The most famous and researched incident involving meteorites in recent past was in Chelyabinsk in 2013. While the powerful shock wave from the meteor damaged buildings, shattered glass and left hundreds injured, there were no deaths.
The odds of being killed by an asteroid impact, as per experts? Between 1 in 700,000 and 1 in 250 million.
The family of Kamaraj, whose luck ran out Saturday, gets Rs 1 lakh from the Chief Minister's Public Relief Fund.