Yes, the sky is falling. It’s always falling, even on the Carolinas.
Though the Russian meteor explosion Friday was spectacular, a constant hail of space rocks pelts Earth’s atmosphere. Most vaporize from friction on their way down, but a rare few survive.
In the Carolinas, 35 have been found over the last two centuries.
Perhaps the most memorable – at least to those involved – arrived April 21, 1913, while a group of men were tending to the cotton crop near Sanford.
“This thing comes zipping in, making large noises, booms, trailing sparklers and it lands right next to them,” said Chris Tacker, curator of geology at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh.
“They were pretty shook up. Then the foreman tried to pick it up, not knowing it would be hot. He remembered that for a long time. A bunch of them said they would quit swearing and start going to church.”
Tacker has a piece of that meteorite and most of the other 29 space rocks discovered in North Carolina. NASA has determined that the cotton field missile likely originated from the giant asteroid Vesta.
Then there was the fireball that roared through the afternoon sky on Dec. 4, 1934, observed from Charlotte to Greenville, N.C. It hit Kinston with such a shock wave that residents figured a whiskey still had exploded.
Out on the farm of Cecil Dixon near Farmville, a group of children quickly dug up a 13-pound meteorite. Two months later, farmer C.P. Brady was tending his corn nearby when he found a 6-foot-wide crater where no crater had been before.
That depression yielded a 111-pound chunk from the same meteorite, about a foot tall and the size of a modern 18-inch pizza.
Meteorites are leftover scraps from the formation of the solar system about 3.5 billion years ago.
Despite its advanced years, a 160-pound iron model was put back to work on Earth after it was plowed up on the Len Cranford Plantation near the Uwharrie River in May 1922. For eight years it served ably as a barnyard anvil, then retired to the Raleigh museum.
S.C. meteorites rare
Six meteorites have been found in South Carolina, beginning with one located in Bishopville in 1843, followed by another at Ruff’s Mountain in Newberry County the following year. Cherokee Springs yielded the last S.C. meteorite in 1933.
It’s not unusual so few have been found in the Carolinas, said Scott Howard, chief geologist of the S.C. Geological Survey in Columbia. “They’ve been covered over by growth or carried away by rivers to the ocean,” he said.
And as hard and heavy as they are, meteorites are no match for Earth’s dynamic geology and weather. Once free of the vacuum of space, they corrode readily.
At the South Carolina State Museum in Columbia, about a dozen meteorites can be seen, including an 83-pounder from Argentina, but none that have been discovered in the state. There are specimens blasted from Mars and the moon.
At Appalachian State University in Boone, people bring in suspected meteorites, but science proves them wrong – at least so far.
“We get people who trot in rocks, one or two a year, and think it’s a meteorite,” said Dan Caton, a professor in the department of physics and astronomy. He shares them with the university’s meteor expert Anthony Love for examination.
“So far, they’re all meteor-wrongs,” said Caton. Observer researcher Maria David contributed.